Monday, July 02, 2018

Some worries about Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament: Part 2

Part 1 is here.

When we encourage young Catholics to touch the monstrance, when exposition becomes routine and people just wander in and out of church without thinking about Who is on the Altar, when we have preaching in front of the Blessed Sacrament as if it were a simple devotional image, we are failing to give God the honour due to Him. 

I know this will fail to motivate a lot of people reading this. They will say that Christ on earth did not demand special treatment, He did not demand 'worshp', He ate and drank with sinners and embraced children. They will be little impressed when I point out that Christ is continually worshipped in the Gospels: the Wise Men worship Him, St Peter falls on his face, there is frequent bowing (proskynesis), there is the use of the divine title 'Lord', there is His sitting on a cushion on the waters as on a throne during the storm on Lake Gallilee, there is the revelation of His glory in the Transfiguration: and the rest of the time His glory, his divinity, was deliberately hidden. They have their way of reading the Gospels and they will take no notice.

Listen, then, to the subjective aspect. Never mind what we are doing or failing to do to God, what are we doing to the young Catholics? We are taking away the seriousness of their encounter with God in the Blessed Sacrament. We are undermining their very sense that God is there, because if the experience is not serious, then, subjectively, it will not seem to be an experience of God. This won't happen straight away: the first time, it may seem an incalculable privilege to touch the monstrance, something forbidden to all but those in major orders within living memory. It may feel intimate and exciting to share a space with the Blessed Sacrament exposed while listening to a preacher. But with familiarity comes familiarity. What is no longer separated, what is no longer surrounded by special rules, ceremony, double-genuflections and incense, will no longer be perceived as holy.

Once that coinage has been debased, we have nothing left to offer.

What, then, should we do? Fr Ray Blake expresses it in this way:

The problem is making something which should be done with as much solemnity as possible workaday and prosaic. I do appreciate the intentions of those who try to encourage devotion to the Blessed Sacrament but starting with Exposition rather than the reception of Holy Communion and reverence to the reserved Blessed Sacrament seems to me a dangerous mistake.

Before we can receive the benefit of the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, we must revalue the coinage. As Fr Blake says, the reception of Communion is currently a huge problem, and that problem must be addressed before we can expect people to understand what they are seeing when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. We can go even further back, and say that catechesis on the Eucharist is a problem, and that this must be addressed. The treatment of the Blessed Sacrament in Mass itself is, often, a huge problem, and if we don't get that right then no-one will understand that there is more to this little white Host than a comforting symbol of God's love, like an image of the Sacred Heart. And when we do come to exposition, we have to do what all religious cultures do to mark things out as sacred: by separation, by reserve, by bending our knees, by offering candles and flowers and incense and a special kind of music, a kind of music not used for anything mundane in our culture.

Not by taking what is holy, the holiest thing we have, and casting it before the swine. That's not the way to convert the swine.

There is a wonderful teaching on this in the Old Testament. During the time of the Judges and Kings in Israel the Hebrews had something which represented the presence of God in their midst: the Ark of the Covenant. The presence of God manifested itself in a visible way in the Temple when the Ark was installed there by Solomon. The Ark was so holy it had to be carried on poles, and only by a special, holy, class of people: a class of people set apart for liturgical functions. When one of these, a man called Uzzah, touched the Ark, perhaps because he was falling over, perhaps because the Ark was in danger of falling over, he was instantly killed by God. This kind of story is incomprehensible to many modern Christians, but it has a message for us, and it is clear enough.

After a period of not being very upright, the Hebrews found themselves in trouble: they were being defeated by their enemies. So, knowing the terrifying power of the Ark, they thought: let's use this. Let's have it in the army and march into battle with it, a bit like when Joshua was commanded to have the Ark carried around Jericho all those years earlier. And what happened? They were defeated and slaughtered, and the Ark was captured.

We cannot use the Blessed Sacrament. We cannot use the liturgy. Once we start using these things they become degraded and, in fact, useless. Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, in announcing perpetual exposion in St Patrick's Soho Square, refers to the tradition of Exposition in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Montmartre in Paris. What was that for, however? That church was built as a national act of reparation. The Forty Hours devotion began as an act of reparation. Benediction itself is not, primarily, an evangelising tool. It is an opportunity for us to give special honour to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We do this by the ceremonies, prayers, and chants, and the watching, in the 40 Hours, through the night. It creates an opportunity to do something a bit like a pilgrimage or a great act of charity, but directed towards the Blessed Sacrament specifically, in recognition of the insults against the holiness of God. It is not something we use for some other purpose. What we, like the builders of Sacré-Cœur, may hope, is that God, being appeased, with visit us and leave a blessing behind.

Let me make explicit the extension of this point to the liturgy in general. We should not use Mass to attract converts. We should celebrate Mass with all possible solemnity because it is an act of worship to God, and that should be done with all possible solemnity. We should, further, do what is possible to excite the piety of the worshipers, to the same end. Worshipers, taking part in the liturgy, will be transformed by it; lukewarm Catholics will be made fervent; non-Catholics, even, may recognise in it the God who makes Himself known through the liturgy. But that is not what it is for. Unlike works of Catholic apologetics, unlike preaching, it is not an instrument we use to gain this goal. To make it an instrument in our plans is to undermine its very nature, something which is offered not to men but to God.

That is compatible with saying, what I have said myself, that the liturgy has a place in the New Evangelisation. There's nothing wrong, either, with the thought that Perpetual Exposition will be good for souls. What would be wrong, on the liturgy, would be to deflect it from its primary function as the worship of God. What would be wrong, with Exposition, would be to deflect it from its primary function, which is the creation of an opportunity for a special worship of God in the Blessed Sacrament.

How could that last thing happen? Look at this photograph.


This chapel is part of the shrine complex at Carfin, outside Glasgow, which I visited a few years ago. It is a long-established Catholic shrine and impressive in many ways. One of the more recent features of the place is a chapel of Perpetual Exposition. I was there on a weekday and the place was very quiet. In this chapel there was an old priest - you can see him on the right. But apart from me and my family, during our brief visit, it was otherwise empty. At a wild guess I'd say that apart from its custodian, if that's what he was (and good for them to have one) that chapel would have been visited by a handful of people in the course of the weekday at most, and more probably by one or two.

In parts of the Philippines, I understand, there are Blessed Sacrament Chapels with Perpetual Adoration which are completely empty all day long. Apart, of course, from Our Lord.

There is no worship going on here when no-one is present. Empty Exposition Chapels are attempts to make good things happen simply by putting the Blessed Sacrament out. I'm sure no-one plans them to be empty, but they must realise that they are after a while and to the extent that the attitude is 'Oh well let's keep on the Exposition for the odd chance person' I'd go so far to say that it is superstitious. It is treating the Blessed Sacrament like a magic amulet which does its work without reference to the response of human beings.

I'm sure Fr Sherbrooke has plans to ensure that the Blessed Sacrament in his church is not left alone. I don't want to give the impression that these posts are a criticism of his specific scheme. What they are are the expression of a worry about the use of Exposition which is more likely to be realised in smaller and less well-supported parishes. It is just to say: before we start to promote Exposition everywhere and all the time, let's not lose sight of what it is all about.

Part 3 is here.

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  1. Keep up the good work Dr Shaw you have educated me more then my local parish priests have ever done.

  2. Can there be any doubt, after just looking around at the amount of disrespect given Our Lord, that what we are seeing generally is a lack of belief in the Real Presence by clergy. That the laity don't believe is a direct reflection of the unbelieving clergy. People should not be encouraged to touch the monstrance. My God.

  3. Anonymous11:17 am

    Quote: "Benediction itself is not, primarily, an evangelizing tool." In the same line, it has to be emphasized that, actually, the Holy Mass IS NOT an "evangelizing tool". I have heard many times - even in "traditionalist" circles - this type of statements: "The Tridentine Holy Mass is an excellent evangelizing tool" etc. Actually, this is a mistake (which is the direct result of a bad liturgical theology which IS NOT Catholic and Traditional at all). No, the context of the evangelization is always OUTSIDE, not INSIDE. Inside the Church - especially at the Mass - can be admitted just those who were already evangelized, baptized and fully initiated into the Divine Mysteries.
    To better understand this I would strongly recommend the famous "Mystagogic Catecheses" written by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, declared Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII. Actually, for Saints and Doctors like Saint Augustine, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Maximus the Confessor, and Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Holy Mass was completely inconceivable as a sort of "sacred exhibition" meant to attract people. Maybe the fact that the most sacred "mystery" (Gr. mysterion) of our Religion - the Holy Mass - is public in these times of apostasy has to be completely changed.

    1. Indeed. In the east it was one of the deacon's duties after the liturgy of the catechumens to chant "Catechumens depart, catechumens depart, let all catechumens depart." Only the baptized were allowed to assist in the worship from the offertory onwards.

  4. "Not by taking what is holy, the holiest thing we have, and casting it before the swine. That's not the way to convert the swine."

    Who are the swine you refer to in this article?

    1. Anonymous10:31 am

      St. Augustine: "The dogs are those that assault the truth; the swine we may not unsuitably take for those that despise the truth. Therefore because dogs leap forth to rend in pieces, and what they rend, suffer not to continue whole, He said, 'Give not that which is holy to the dogs;' because they strive to the utmost of their power to destroy the truth. The swine though they do not assault by biting as dogs, yet do they defile by trampling upon, and therefore He said, 'Cast not your pearls before swine'.”

      Bl. Rabanus: "The dogs are returned to their vomit; the swine not yet returned, but wallowing in the mire of vices."

      St. John Chrys.: "The dog and the swine are unclean animals; the dog indeed in every respect, as he neither chews the cud, nor divides the hoof; but swine in one respect only, seeing they divide the hoof, though they do not chew the cud. Hence I think that we are to understand by the dog, the Gentiles who are altogether unclean, both in their life, and in their faith; but by the swine are to be understood heretics, because they seem to call upon the name of the Lord. 'Give not therefore that which is holy to the dogs,' for that baptism and the other sacraments are not to be given but to them that have the faith. In like manner the mysteries of the truth, that is, the pearls, are not to be given but to such as desire the truth and live with human reason. If then you cast them to the swine, that is, to such as are grovelling in impurity of life, they do not understand their preciousness, but value them like to other worldly fables, and tread them under foot with their carnal life. The swine not only trample upon the pearls by their carnal life, but after a little they turn, and by disobedience rend those who offend them. Yea often when offended they bring false accusation against them as sowers of new dogmas. The dogs also having trode upon holy things by their impure actions, by their disputations rend the preacher of truth."

  5. Anonymous10:30 am

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