Saturday, February 09, 2019

Sinners in the Queue for Communion

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Queuing for Holy Communion in Westminster Cathedral at the LMS Annual Requiem
A lot of the acrimonious debate about Amoris Laetitia boils down to the question of Catholics in a state of grave sin wishing to receive Holy Communion. Such difficulties are not new to the Church, which has long included unjust rulers, men who have mistresses, people enjoying the fruits of crime, and such like. Indeed, in one respect the situation was more difficult in past centuries, because more people voluntarily excluded themselves from receiving, to such an extent that in the High Middle Ages most lay Catholics only received Communion once a year, on Easter Sunday.

So the question asked today was relevant: how can the Church both exclude Catholics in grave sin from Holy Communion, or foresee that they will exclude themselves, and still make them feel part of the Church’s liturgical life, a lifeline to the sinner who needs the grace of repentance?

The answer is that the Church has found many ways of doing this, ways which are not, in general, employed today. It is instructive to consider them.

The central point is a simple one: in past centuries, liturgical participation at Mass was not focused on the reception of Holy Communion.

Catholics willingly attended Masses at which they would not receive, in order to ‘hear Mass’. Peasants went to early Masses before starting work. Nobles would have a priest celebrate Mass at an altar in their bedroom before breakfast. St Margaret of Scotland attended three Masses, one after the other, each morning. The complex ceremonial, the use of Latin and (if the Mass was sung) chant and other music, made it a deeply spiritual experience.

What were they doing during these Masses? They were praying. They were uniting their prayers with those of the priest and of the Church. It was spiritual food for them.
The high point of these Masses was the Consecration. As time went on the moment of Consecration was surrounded with greater ceremonial (such as raising the Host for people to see), and all kinds of architectural and musical techniques were employed to give it greater visibility, emphasis, and dignity. There were indulgences for those who witnessed the elevation and said a short prayer: ‘My Lord and my God’. Those who saw Christ in the elevation felt that they had done something important that day.

Other things took place at a parish’s main Sunday Mass which further helped foster a sense of inclusion.

First, Mass began with the congregation being sprinkled with Holy Water (the ‘Asperges’).
Then, in many places the people participated in the ‘Kiss of Peace’ by kissing a metal or wooden object, a ‘pax’, which was passed from the priest to the server and then to each member of the congregation. This symbolized the Peace of Christ spreading out from the Altar, and the Consecrated Host present upon it at that point in Mass.

At the moment of the Priest’s Communion, people made a ‘Spiritual Communion’, a form of words summarizing their intense desire for Christ to enter their hearts.

At the end of Mass ‘Blessed Bread’ was distributed in some regions of Europe, and sometimes ‘Absolution Wine’. These made particular sense of the practice of fasting before attending Mass, even if one were not to receive Communion, and were sacramentals.

When Holy Communion was received by the whole community, in the Middle Ages, on Easter Sunday, those not receiving, whether villagers or kings, were shown up as sinners. This happened, however, only once a year: today, we have this problem every Sunday. In the past, when the faithful had began to receive Holy Communion more frequently, another practice developed which stopped the Communion line being such a public spectacle: Communion was given between Masses, or in private. Coupled with the practice of going to Communion monthly or fortnightly, after careful preparation, this made it impossible to tell if your neighbor was a regular communicant.

This last practice ended in the inter-war period. The kissing of the ‘pax’ and the customs of ‘Blessed Bread’ and wine died out, for the most part, in the centuries after the Council of Trent. A final idea worth noting, however, is this. Missionaries in Africa in the 20th century faced the problem that many non-Christian men well-disposed to Catholicism were impeded in their conversion by the fact that they had multiple wives. One approach to the problem was to encourage them to make a promise to be baptized before they died. This placed them in a clearly demarcated ante-chamber of the Church, and there could be no doubt, if one fell seriously ill, that those looking after him could baptize him validly even if he lost consciousness.

My purpose here is not to suggest that all these practice be revived, necessarily, but to point out that a little pastoral imagination could address the problems all acknowledge and which can otherwise look insuperable.


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