Friday, March 09, 2018

Do we want to solve the problem of sacrilegious Communions?

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Holy Communion at a High Mass in the Domincan Rite at Oxford's Blackfriars
Sometimes people like to complain about problems but do not, really, want to solve them. If you offer a solution, they are uninterested, or even angry. The problem is important to them. It may even be a way for them to get something they want: perhaps to extract a concession from someone. So I ask: does anyone (anyone in authority) actually want to solve the problem of sacrilegious communions?

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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30 comments:

  1. The problem here is one of education - or lack of it.

    There is confusion amongst the faithful as to when it is necessary to go to confession before receiving Communion. In our church we have been told that if we have only venial sins we need not go to confession and can receive Communion if we confess to God. The problem is, most people cannot distinguish between venial and mortal sins; and see sins such as unfaithfulness or adultery as "quaint" naughty sins.

    That being said, we also have the problem that many so called faithful do not believe it is the Body and Blood of Christ we receive in Communion. I have known priests who openly said this is only symbolism performed at Mass in memory of Christ's last supper. With priests like these still in the Church, no wonder confusion reigns supreme and many are sleep-walking their way into hell.

    God bless.

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  2. There is also the modern practice, imported from mission territory, of lay led communion services in the absence of a priest. I am aware of a chapel of ease where for lack of a priest this happens most Sunday's rather than the congregation driving to another church for Mass. Communion and community trump the obligation to hear Mass on Sunday, to all appearances.

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    1. Quite right - many people seem to think that the Sunday obligation is to receive communion, not to hear Mass.

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  3. Many readers will consider this proposal to be unthinkable from a pastoral perspective. Having witnessed a couple of well-attended Masses at which communion was not distributed, I am less sure that it would cause serious disturbance if an explanation was given.

    As you say, the pressure people feel to queue up for communion is a major part of the problem. Distributing communion outside Mass would probably not make it a non-public act from a canonical perspective, but it would certainly make it less public in practical terms, and since the stakes would be lowered in that respect, it would be easier to deal with problematic situations that arise.

    But to those who don't like your proposal, I would suggest another, perhaps easier way to ameliorate the problem: the restoration of the traditional Eucharistic fast (from midnight). Then, if I don't receive communion at a given Mass, my neighbours will not assume that I have committed mortal sin: they will suppose that I ate breakfast.

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    1. Hear, hear! The restoration of the traditional praxis, once a common bond of all Christians, to receive the Holy Eucharist as the first food of the day is the greatest respect that can be shown to the Sacrament.

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    2. Yes indeed. Evening mass and the concurrent reduction of the communion fast are completely underrated in their importance: rarely even mentioned, but really the harbingers of the entire liturgical revolution.

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  4. Dome years ago Granada Television, with the co-operation of the then Jesuit media officer, broadcast a series of Sunday services from St. Walburge's, Preston, [now thankfully ICKSP] which purported to be multi-faith "Mass"es with common distribution of Communion. I wish ICKSP could recover these for historical records. Those broadcasts diminished any exclusivity of The Eucharist, therefore what can one expect of the current position. Christopher has a good point regarding Fasting, I recognise a three hour period.

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  5. What about only being able to receive in the confessional, private, after receiving absolution, after making a very good sacramental confession? The same as for those who are sick who receive both sacraments at the same time in sequence. This would no doubt increase the practice of receiving the Sacrament of penance exponentially, and eliminate the questionable practice of lay Eucharistic Ministers, the sacrilegious dropping of particles, the misuse of lay persons handling the sacred vessels, to clean them after Mass, etc. Also, everyone would receive kneeling and on the tongue! The only problem would be praying the penance. It would need to be a very short penance, or the penitent could pray it after leaving the confessional. I would think that the absolution received would be sufficiently acceptable to prepare the soul for the Holy Sacrament. Then the prayers of Thanksgiving and Adoration could include, also the penance given by the priest. One other advantage to this would be shorter Masses, and longer periods at Mass for Chants and Adoration!

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  6. Whilst Ms Held makes a good point it could only be workable IF we had sufficient priests. Right now we don't have enough priests to celebrate the Mass in every church so how could we expect the priest to be available at a time to suit us to hear our confession & give us Communion? I was taught (many years ago) that on my way up to the altar for Communion I should make a good Act of Contrition if my sins were only venial. Of course for mortal sin physical Confession & Absolution are & always were required. Whilst I accept that we are all sinners it does nothing but good to make an Act of Perfect Contrition on the way to the altar. Any priest (or good old fashioned Catholic) should be able to give the formula & I always add "Lord Jesus Christ with faith in Your love & mercy I eat Your Body & drink Your Blood let it not bring me condemnation but health in mind & body".

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  8. At a church in Ottawa, Canada, there are numerous cards in every pew in which is highlighted the requirement of being a Catholic to receive as well as the necessity of going to confession first if one has serious sin on their conscience. Also the FSSP in Warrington, England, highlight these requirements in their bulletins as well as from the pulpit periodically. I have tried to expand my understanding why even "good" priests elsewhere do not act likewise, however, I fail in every attempt I make. Do they really not care, or worse, not believe? In my parish, which is a very small one in Nova Scotia, an Anglican, who is also a free-mason and a Lay-Reader in his own Anglican parish, has been receiving communion every Sunday for several years now. Are such allowances not the behaviour of schismatic clergy?

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    1. I think its not a matter of education. The point seems to be that even after education, we should find a way to accommodate because it alienates these public sinners. Also, public sinners cannot just go to confession and receive while still clearly living in a scandalous manner, right?

      I could be wrong, but my thinking is that we have got this all wrong! The priests are supposed to be denying communion to public sinners. The faithful should distance themselves from these public sinners too. This way, they are forced to get in line! True, few rebellious folks will still stubbornly do what it is they are doing with no remorse. But in general, the Catholic population will then march the Catholic party line (even if they interiorly do not submit to the demands).

      Right now, by making the public sinners feel accommodated, we inadvertently end up making it that much easier for others to consider going down the wrong path!

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  9. The new Ordinariate parish, St. Margaret Mary, New Moston, Manchester, likewise the necessity prior to reception of Communion.

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  10. I thought, in regard to public sinners, part of the intended consequences of denying communion is indeed to make them feel uncomfortable/alienated and make them want to correct themselves. So do we really want a solution to make them feel OK in Church?

    The Church seems to have gone wrong when she started thinking that making people feel alienated and left out is against the gospel. St. Paul certainly didn't have any qualms about asking the man in the Corinthian community to be removed from the community.

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  11. The closing Mass at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 was held at the Phoenix Park and attended by an estimated one million people. The laity did not receive Communion, nor did they expect to do so; in any case the fast was from midnight.

    In papal mega-Masses these days armies of priests and deacons hand out Communion without regard as to whether the recipient is Catholic or not. However, it is far from certain whether they are receiving the Body of Christ at all, since the bread to be consecrated is not on the altar of sacrifice - ciboria are held by priests, deacons and seminarians hundreds of yards away.

    In the Roman Rite it is made quite clear where the ciborium is placed at the Consecration. The contents of a ciborium inadvertently left at the credence table would not be consecrated.

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  12. many people go for a blessing these days...

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    1. A liturgical absurdity created by the current practice which would no longer be needed.

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    2. Apologies, my question is also with regard to a person's request for a blessing, 'in lieu' of Holy Communion, at current EF Masses; how should the Priest respond?

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  13. Truly, but is this permitted at a Tridentine Mass?

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    1. It is not obligatory to offer the people Communion at a particular Mass. But I think the old ceremony of Communion outside Mass is not allowed under the current rules.

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    2. Which rules are those?

      The "1962 Ritual" has the ceremony for communion outside of mass in it. And in the church at large, communion services are more common now than at any other time since the era you described in your post, so obviously there is no general prohibition on receiving communion outside of mass.

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  14. Historically the typical Mass timetable was: 07:00; 08:00; 09:30; 11:00. Communion was never available at the 11:00 Mass, arising from fasting regulation and probably half the congregation received at 09:30.

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  15. Actually when I was a boy chorister we had either Missa Cantata or Missa Solemnis every Sunday at 11am. You are right in stating that Communion was not available at that Mass due to the fasting rule from midnight but one particular Sunday a communicant approached the altar rails at that Mass & the celebrant gave him Communion so never say never.

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  16. Interestingly, the FSSP priest who celebrated last week in Bedford was at pains to point out that 'coming up for a blessing' was both reprehensible and unnecessary since everyone received a blessing at the end of Mass.

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  17. See this post. http://www.lmschairman.org/2012/05/blessings-at-communion-time-cdw-speaks.html?m=1

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  18. At least in the traditional form of the Roman rite the Communion of the Faithful does not prevent singing the longer Agnus Dei settings. After Pax Domini ... Et cum ..., there can be non-stop singing until the Postcommunion prayer. In Novus Ordo, on the other hand, how often they would sing those 18th century Masses with never-ending Dona nobis pacem fugues anyway?

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    1. You are mistaken. The Agnus Dei has to end before the 'Ecce Agnus Dei': if it still going on the priest will wait for it to end.

      https://lms.org.uk/scholas-guide-sung-mass#agnus-dei

      When that is done the choir can start singing the Communion Antiphon and anything else they want to sing, such as a motet, until the Postcommunion.

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    2. Oh it's not just 18th Viennese Agnus Dei settings which are ruled out - many pre-Tridentine ones are long as well.

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  19. Yes the 1958 instruction 27(c) indeed seems to imply this. What a disappointment! But maybe an "improper" place for communion chant is not forbidden either? I always thought that "Ecce Agnus" and whatever comes with it is for those who have come to the Communinon rail, not those in pews, so that singing may continue over it. It would seem logical to me. Alas, these are the pre-50s rules.

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  20. At Regensburg Georg Ratzinger, with his brother's approval, initiated the practice of singing the lengthier Agnus Dei settings during the people's Communion. However, I suspect that the London Oratory got there first - they were certainly doing it in the early 1970s.

    A bigger problem with the Novus Ordo is that the celebrant is obliged to wait until the end of the Sanctus and Benedictus before commencing the Canon.

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