Our American bishops, rightly concerned about the widespread loss of faith in the Most Holy Eucharist, have launched a three-year “Eucharistic revival.” All the teaching, preaching, and programs in the world, however, will avail little to nothing if we don’t address the root causes of the unbelief, namely, that the signs and symbols of the Sacred Liturgy no longer support the teaching. So herewith is a “modest proposal” to reverse this problem.
Loss of Latin: The Council Fathers opened up the possibility for greater use of the vernacular (e.g., in the Scripture readings, prayer of the faithful), but they were quite clear that Latin should not only be retained in the liturgy but that the faithful ought to be able to respond to the Latin prayers and sing the venerable Gregorian chants. Every major religion retains a place of honor for a sacral language, lest the pedestrian override the sacred. Banishing Latin has also contributed to the “balkanization” of parishes as various ethnic groups split off into their separate communities.
Movement of the tabernacle: In the Credo of the People of God, Pope Paul VI referred to the tabernacle as “the living heart of each of our churches.” So, why the relegation of the tabernacle to a side altar, separate chapel (or closet), resulting in the replacement of Christ at the center, usually by an enthroned priest? With the tabernacle off the central axis, should we be surprised by people chatting as they enter the church as if they were in a movie theater?
Removal of altar rails: Ripping out altar rails obscured the necessary distinction between the sacred and the profane. The altar needs to be visually set apart because what is enacted there is removed from our commonplace experience of daily life: Heaven is coming down to earth. With that distinction lost, those of us on earth have difficulty ascending to Heaven (which should occur at every Mass).
Communion fast: Prior to Pope Pius XII, the Communion fast began at midnight; it was hard, so that the frequent Communion advocated by Pope Pius X was noted in the breach more than in the observance. Pius XII wisely mitigated that fast to three hours for solid foods and one hour for liquids. Pope Paul VI modified the fast even further, to the present discipline, namely, one hour for solid food or liquids. The purpose of the Eucharistic fast is to make us feel physical hunger, the better to know spiritual hunger for the Bread of Life.
Standing for Holy Communion: For centuries, Catholics of the Western Church have knelt to receive their Eucharistic Lord (Eastern Christians historically have stood). The problem is not so much with standing as such but with the lack of any sign of reverence. Have we forgotten St. Augustine’s admonition: “No one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it”?
Mass facing the people: Versus populum celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is a true novelty (St. Peter’s in Rome is the exception that proves the rule). In every religion where sacrifice has been offered, from biblical Judaism to the worship of the pagan Greeks and Romans, priest and people face the same direction, presumably facing the Divinity being implored. Ironically, the versus populum position is far more clericalist than the ad Orientem posture because, perforce, it makes the priest the center of attention.
Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion: In promulgating Immensae Caritatis (1973), Paul VI gave very precise indications for recourse to the non-ordained for distributing Holy Communion; those norms were subsequently incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. I have never seen a situation in which those norms are followed.
Lay distribution of the Holy Sacrament diminishes two sacraments: the august nature of the Eucharist (if anyone can distribute It, what’s the big deal?) and the unique identity of the ordained minister. St. Thomas Aquinas, in one of his hymns composed for the feast of Corpus Christi, Sacris Solemniis, has us sing, “as only the priest can confect (the Eucharist), only does he distribute.”
Communion in the hand: This practice arose in the Low Countries, France, and Germany after the Council. Pope Paul consulted the worldwide episcopate about this phenomenon, with the vast majority of bishops voting strongly against it. In Memoriale Domini (1969), the Pope, fearing a schism, acquiesced to the will of the disobedient countries, allowing the continuation of Communion in the hand, there and only there. But it didn’t end in those places. As in many other countries, some liturgists and bishops in the United States sought to get on the bandwagon; the issue came up several times for a vote of our bishops, and each time was defeated. Finally, through the machinations of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (then president of the episcopal conference), the illicit polling of absent bishops through mail-in ballots (!) brought about victory in 1977.
Some counter that Communion in the hand was the practice of the ancient Church, a theory that has been widely questioned. Indeed, there are many practices of the ancient Church that few would want revived – like lifelong penance! What is certainly incontestable is that for over a millennium, reception on the tongue was universal.
The call for its abandonment occurred at the time of the Protestant Reformation. We should not be surprised, then, that 70 percent of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence (the very statistic that precipitated episcopal alarm) and have a truncated understanding of the Sacred Priesthood (and a concomitant decline in priestly vocations) since the introduction of Communion in the hand more than four decades ago.
No element called for here in any way contradicts a single paragraph of the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. While still an Anglican, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman warned in 1831: “Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason, – for the Church’s authority is from Christ, – being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls.”
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Politicizing the Eucharist
Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s Hard Sayings