I saw this image in Twitter (h-t @ ). I am also inspired to write by this article by Fr Alexander Sherbrooke on the forthcoming introduction of perpetual adoration in his church of St Patrick's, Soho Square: more of that in Part 2.
There are a number of possible reactions to this photo. As Steve Skojek himself said, one must admire the devotion, while worrying about what is happening here.
This is not an isolated case from a far-away country. Below are photos from Youth 2000, one from a celebration in Cardiff, the other from Scotland. Notice the gesticulating young layman in the first, with the Blessed Sacrament, exposed, between him and the standing people. In the second it is possible to see the strange pyramid of candles supporting the monstrance, while a friar preaches, and the people (as far as I can tell), sit.
There is a lot going on here which needs to be unpacked. One thing is that this kind of event is a reaction against something clearly bad: the banishing of the Blessed Sacrament to an undistinguished corner of the church, if He is there at all; the loss of moments of contemplation in Mass; and the disappearance of Benediction and Blessed Sacrament Processions. These young Catholics want to be able to pray before Him.
But interestingly enough, in the Youth 2000 photographs, they are actually being prevented from doing so. Clearly the conflict has not been articulated by anyone involved, but instead of focusing on Him, they are being asked to listen to a preacher. In the black-and-white photograph below, a priest preaches during a pause, at an outside Altar, in a Blessed Sacrament procession in Oxford in the 1940s. For this reason the Blessed Sacrament, in a monstrance on a 'throne' on this Altar, is hidden - yes, hidden - behind a specially-designed screen called a 'baffle'. (From the photographer's angle, you can actually see the monstrance behind the screen.) When the preacher finished, the baffle would be removed.
My concern is not to criticise people for failing to follow customs and rules which have not been in force for many decades. My point is rather to draw attention to the difference of attitude. When Our Blessed Saviour is exposed to view at the Elevation in Mass, or in Benediction, or in any other context, the tradition of the Church is that He takes centre-stage. He is not just a visual aid or prop. You don't just have Him sitting there while you do something else.
The first photograph is not about that, but it also illustrates the underlying problem. This is the problem of overfamiliarity. This will I am sure be incomprehensible to many Catholics who regard themselves as totally orthodox and devoted to the Eucharist. But if you believe that this little white Host is actually Our Lord, in his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, then you should act accordingly. The actions which reflect and articulate this belief are actions of reverence. The touching of the monstrance in the first picture is indeed a traditional gesture of reverence, one made to devotional images - you see this a lot in Catholic countries. Here is has been transferred to the monstrance. While the gesture is undoubtedly sincere, what this transference means is the demotion of the Blessed Sacrament to the level of a devotional image.
That is also the level suggested by preaching in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed: it looks exactly like the traditional practice, especially associated with the Franciscans, of preaching next to a crucifix, to which the preacher could from time to time draw attention.
Of course, the people in these photographs would be much less likely than their grandparents to touch, devotionally, the foot of a statue of St Peter, or see a priest point to a crucifix while preaching. What this means, nevertheless, is that the entire coinage has been debased.
Fr Ray Blake has pointed out that exposition should be something very special: it should be a high point of devotion. It should be done with the maximum possible solemnity: the largest possible number of candles, with incense, and so on.
Think about traditional ceremony of Benediction with the priest, who ordinarily has the privilege of touching the Host with his fingers, touching the monstrance only with a humeral veil for the moment of Benediction itself. What does that remind us of? It reminds us of the Altar Servers who should not touch the bishop's Mitre or Crozier with their hands, but use a special cloth, the vimpa, to hold them. It reminds us of the lay sacristan who puts on white cotton gloves, or uses a cloth, to move a ciborium. It reminds us of the subdeacon in High Mass who uses a humeral veil to hold the paten. The ceremony is making another kind of transferance: it transfers a practice necessary to a person of lesser dignity than the priest, to the priest himself, and by doing so it magnifies the status of the Blessed Sacrament, at that special moment. Instead of demoting the Blessed Sacrament, it demotes the priest, the better to allow us to see, at that moment, the vast gulf which separates the priest from the Christ he serves.
It does not devalue the coinage of symbolic gesture: it revalues it.
To be continued: Part 2.
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