A major reason I became Catholic concerned the Church’s profound theology of the Eucharist, which I (as a New Testament scholar) found squared well with the biblical witness, once certain modern lenses fell like scales from my eyes. Paul speaks of our real participation in the body and blood of Christ as that which unites the Church (1 Corinthians 10:16-17) and soon thereafter remarks that some of the Corinthians have fallen infirm and dropped over dead because of their eating and drinking unworthily (11:27-32). One doesn’t die from mishandling symbols; one dies from mishandling that in which God is found, as readers familiar with Uzzah’s demise in 2 Samuel 6 and viewers of Raiders of the Lost Ark know.
In Luke 24:30-31 the risen Jesus vanishes from the two disciples’ sight precisely after Jesus “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” to signal that Christ is to be found thereafter in the Eucharist. John 6 presents a view of the Eucharist as high as any, bringing to mind the famous description of St. John’s disciple, St. Ignatius, of the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality.” Having done the exegetical work, I must confess with true charity I don’t understand how some can strain out the gnat of transubstantiation in John 6 (or some other high view, such as the Lutheran) having swallowed the camel of the Incarnation just a few chapters prior. Indeed, we Catholics believe so strongly in both the Incarnation and transubstantiation that we engage in the real “Worship of the Eucharist” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1378) as if it’s God, because we believe it is.
Or at least we’re supposed to. As a new Catholic, I’m beginning to wonder if the way we receive the Eucharist at Mass has served to undercut our particularly Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Lex orandi lex credendi, after all. Liturgy teaches. A Pew survey of religious knowledge taken last year discovered that 45 percent of Catholics “do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ.” (Of course, regular mass-goers seem better informed.) And of course the liturgy does more than just teach, as if religion were merely a matter of propositional doctrine; liturgy ought also inspire deep reverence for the Eucharist, because, again, we believe it’s God.
Now, in most Novus Ordo masses I’ve attended the congregation is dismissed pew-by-pew to approach the ministers of communion in a relatively fast-moving line. Some, like Archbishop Conti of Glasgow, think that this procession “beautifully expresses the way in which we are a people journeying towards the Lord.” Others, speaking sotto voce, mention they sense the semiotics of a drive-thru. My experience is that the process can feel rushed and perfunctory, even with a large team of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion on hand. I find I time my act of devotion (a quick genuflection or nod of the head, for instance, depending on how fast the line moves) with the prior communicant’s reception. Then I step forward to receive. Having received, I’m all too aware of the queue behind me and feel pressured to make way for others, and so I depart quickly, striding briskly back to my pew—while chewing Almighty God. I find the mechanics do not encourage reverence in me, at least.
How can I rightly savor the awesome moment of communion when I’m concentrating on making my way back to my seat? And so the past couple Sundays I’ve simply received the host, stepped a bit to the side of the priest while facing the altar and crucifix, and consumed it slowly and reverently. It’s a simple solution for me, and no one seems to mind; the front of the nave is so busy anyway it’s hard to be in anyone’s way, or to notice if someone was.
The few Tridentine masses I attended back in Chicagoland were different, of course. Communicants kneel at the rail while waiting for the priest to make his way to them, giving them time to prepare mentally and spiritually for what should be, theologically, the most profound moment they will experience until their death. Having received, time remains for them to consume the host slowly and reverently, and then depart for their pew at a reasonable pace.
Now many have neither ready access to nor desire for a Tridentine mass, and none of us should hold our breath waiting for altar rails and kneeling to return to celebrations of the Novus Ordo, Benedict’s desires for reverent liturgy notwithstanding. But drawing on (of all things) my experiences as a Lutheran preacher and liturgist serving a small German service in Naperville, Illinois, I would suggest a simple solution. When we celebrated Holy Communion, the congregants would come up in groups of about 15-20 and stand in the front of our small sanctuary. I as Pfarrer would shuffle from communicant to communicant and distribute the elements: Christi Leib, für dich gegeben / Christi Blut, für dich vergossen. Each communicant having received, they would commune together, and having communed, I would dismiss them: Gehet hin in Frieden. Then the next group would approach.
Something similar could easily be done in Catholic churches. People could line up across the front of the nave in front of the sanctuary, standing, if they wish, kneeling, if they choose, as is permitted. Then the priest—with a server holding a paten, perhaps—could shuffle from communicant to communicant and distribute the host. The Precious Blood could be brought as well by a second priest or some authorized minister of Holy Communion. Communicants would have time to prepare, receive and commune, no architectural renovations would be necessary, and fewer Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion would be involved. (As the 1997 document Ecclesia de mysterio points out in Article 8, such Ministers are supposed to be truly Extraordinary, not routine, lest confusion regarding the nature of the priesthood and the sacrament result.)
Of course, even the slightest changes in How Things Are Done can arouse fear and loathing in the faithful, and thus any changes would need to be implemented slowly with due explanation and preparation; that said, perhaps the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal this fall provides a ready window.
Given what Catholics believe about the Eucharist, reverence matters, for God’s sake and our own. In any event the Catechism makes clear that the liturgy is “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God” (1074). Indeed, Pope Benedict emphasized in Sacramentum Caritatis 64 that “the best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well.” It’s God, after all.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His most recent article in First Things is “The Collins Bank Bible.”
Christian belief in and knowledge of Transubstantiation
Eucharist/Holy Communion Survey results
Pastoral Letter on the New Translation of the Roman Missal [PDF]
On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest
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