|Holy Communion at a High Mass in the Domincan Rite at Oxford's Blackfriars|
Pope John Paul II pointed out the problem way back in 1980 (Dominicae Cenae):
Sometimes, indeed quite frequently, everybody participating in the eucharistic assembly goes to Communion; and on some such occasions, as experienced pastors confirm, there has not been due care to approach the sacrament of Penance so as to purify one’s conscience.
The situation is now vastly worse than in 1980. Many go without real reflection. Others, who might be thinking about how they ought to go to Confession first, find it embarrassing or even physically awkward to avoid going up too. It has become a common attitude that if you don't go to Communion, you've not been to Mass properly: you've not fulfilled your obligation. And all this is to say nothing of the problem of those who feel excluded, or the priests who feel they need to exclude them, because of notorious public sin, a problem which is the root of the greatest crisis in the Church, according to some, since Arianism, and which is threatening to cause a schism.
As a matter of fact there is a perfectly straightforward solution, which doesn't require any change to the Church's teaching about Marriage, or sacramental discipline about public sinners. Nor does it require priests to enforce brutal and (to many church-going Catholics) incomprehensible restrictions on the reception of Communion. It requires a liturgical practice which is not so problematic that it has not in the past been permitted over many years and over widely varying social conditions.
Here how it works. The problem of sacrilegious communion, and the related problem arising from the theoretical obligation to prevent at least one category of these at the Altar Rail, arises largely because of the very public nature of the reception of Communion in our churches today. Although people generally no longer dress up for it, it is a parade. If we take that element away, we have greatly ameliorated the problem.
What I am referring to is the practices surrounding Holy Communion which were universal in the Church for a number of centuries up to the 20th century. Since they died out at the outer limit of today's living memory, between the two World Wars, people may be surprised to hear what they were.
1. Communion is not commonly distributed during Mass. It is distributed before, after, or between Masses, or on application to the parish priest.
2. Liturgical participation in Mass is focused not on the reception of Holy Communion but on witnessing the newly-consecrated Host and the Chalice, which are surrounded with as much solemnity as possible, enriched with indulgences, and so on.
If Holy Communion is not distributed at Mass after the priest's Communion then reception ceases to be a public act. The whole question of what people will think if you do or do not join the queue with everyone else disappears. People may still receive Holy Communion in groups at the Altar Rails, of course, but they do not do so in front of the entire congregation.
The older practice is not the most ancient practice. It was discouraged under the influence of the Liturgical Movement which sought to re-integrate Holy Communion into Mass where, it was felt, it belonged, from a ritual point of view, and also to make the Sacrament of Communion a more appropriately communal act. I don't have any particular disagreement with the arguments in favour of having the Communion of the Faithful in Mass, but they are clearly not arguments of infinite weight. Other things being equal it makes more sense, perhaps. But now we are facing a major crisis: the situation is one not remotely anticipated by the liturgists of the early 20th century. Reversing this particular well-meaning reform should be a no-brainer.
An incidental aspect of the re-insertion of the Communion of the Faithful into Mass was making impossible the singing of many of the settings of the Agnus Dei which were composed during the period when it wasn't there. These could be very long: they weren't interupted by the Communion of the Faithful, and sometimes included the Communion Antiphon at the end.
If, that is, we are in the business of finding solutions. Those who want to give the growing crisis the fuel it needs to create some kind of explosion in the Church, some kind or volcanic eruption where the theology of marriage and sacramental discipline, the reality of the Blessed Sacrament and even the authority of the Papacy are all imperilled: well then we should definitely keep things as they are.
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