Sunday, July 01, 2018

Some worries about Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament: Part 1

 I saw this image in Twitter (h-t @SteveSkojec ). 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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  1. The explanation I have been given for the priest covering his hands when giving the blessing with the monstrance is to highlight the fact that it is not his hands which are giving the blessing, though they are consecrated to do so, but Jesus Christ Himself.
    Clare Underwood

  2. Please kindly explain how to subscribe to this blog. Thank you ever so much, Mr. Shaw.

  3. One of the things Charismatics often do is dance and have loud spontaneous praise and clapping before the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance and they use David as their example who danced before the Ark. Their other justifications include Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people cheering him as well as the heavenly worship in the book of Revelation where there was loud exclamations. They also justify touching the monstrance as Jesus said ‘let the little children come onto me’ and also through the story of the woman who touched the hem of his garment. I would appreciate any thoughts on this why this is wrong when there appears to be some foundational Biblical principles for these actions.

    1. No-one is objecting to them singing songs of praise.

    2. I am looking at this problem from a more basic level. My experience in my parish in former years is that the removal of the tabernacle was a real attack on devotion to Jesus in the Tabernacle. And it worked. I remember in m your days how people would visit the church for only a minute perhaps just to say 'Hello" to Jesus in the ?Tabernacle. I my own parish the Tabernacle was not moved but devotion to the Jesus within died away. And we who loved Adoration and Exposition were partly to blame for when such things were removed we too behaved as though the Church was just an empty place. People come to meetings in the Parish but they do not visit the Church for it seems 'there is nothing there just space" You find body praying before the Tabernacle after Mass, it is all over and Jesus has disappeared. Many of us have los the sense that the Church is Holy Place. "Take off your sandals" said God to Moses "for the ground you walk on his Holy" It was holy because God was present there in a very special way working the miracle of th Buirnong Bush. Our church to o is a Holy Place because God is there in a special way also as God made Man in the Tabernacle. If God is seen as only specially present at Adoration then it is surely no wonder that there is confusion. I have recently started Devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament by spending time loving him on a Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. I encourage others to go and hope that once again we will see people just looking in for a few minutes, parents coming with their children on the way to or after schools. I do not know ho it will go but I know that this is what Jesus and Mary want so I have Faith that something will develop. God bless everyone.

    3. Charismatics have gotten the story of David wrong. He had recovered the Ark and was bring it back to the Temple. He danced as he brought it, he did not dance in the Temple.

  4. This appears to be a Y2000 retreat. My daughter and son from these retreats are very clear that Christ is Eucharist.
    Kids who get to be in front of Jesus even the most ignorance move toward Christ and reverence. My daughter and son in law are now a devout Catholics because they spent 3 solid days before our Lord worshipping and praying. He does the work. He makes himself known. He changes these kids and opens their hearts to Him. Most have never known him and lead irreverent lives before and live a different life from this moment on