Immersed in Christ: June 14, 2020
Feast of The Body and Blood of Christ (Year A)
“A Food Unknown...”
What do you know about Eucharist? What first comes to your mind when you hear the word? Is it “Communion”? or “the Mass”? In your mind, can they be separated?
Father Bernard Botte, O.S.B. died in 1980. He was a key figure in the efforts to renew the liturgy before Vatican II (1962-1965) and to implement the Council’s teaching in parish life afterwards. He tells us how the Mass was actually understood when he was growing up (he was born 1893). When he was in high school:
Every morning there was a Mass in the students’ chapel.... Even in the first row the only thing you’d hear [from the altar] was a murmur. The group rose for the Gospel [read in Latin], but nobody dreamed of telling us what Gospel it was.... The people’s missal did not exist. You could lose yourself in any prayerbook at all, but we were pulled out of our drowsiness from time to time by the recitation of a few decades of the rosary... The only time we could pray with the priest was after Mass when the celebrant, kneeling at the foot of the altar, recited the three “Hail Marys”... and the prayers prescribed by Pope Leo XIII. Receiving Communion at this Mass was out of the question. For that matter, no one seemed to notice a relationship between Mass and Communion.... In the two parishes of my home town... Communion was distributed before Mass, after Mass, or in the middle of Mass, but never at the moment indicated by the liturgy... Communion was distributed every fifteen minutes.... A priest would come out of the sacristy and interrupt the celebrant in order to take a ciborium out of the tabernacle. The celebrant then was allowed to continue the Mass until he was disturbed once again by the ciborium being returned to the tabernacle.... When one of my sisters asked Monsignor Lalieu (a doctor in theology and an author of a book on the Mass) about the best time to receive Communion, he recommended she receive before Mass and then offer Mass in thanksgiving for Communion! This sounds strange to us, but we ought to keep in mind the ideas then current. Mass was no longer the prayer of the Christian community. The clergy prayed entirely in place of and in the name of the community. As a result, the faithful were only remotely involved and paid attention to their own personal devotion. Communion appeared to be a private devotion without any special link to the Mass.... The only time the faithful prayed together was when the rosary was recited aloud.... Pope Leo XIII had prescribed the recitation of the rosary during Low Masses of [October, the “month of the rosary”]. Eucharistic piety had evolved toward adoration and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The summit was Mass with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
Father Botte describes the lamentable state of theology, Scripture study and preaching (“the clergy had nothing to say except for moralizing sermons”), and concludes: “The liturgical movement was born out of a reaction to this situation.” 1
On August 20, 1914, five days after Fr. Botte was discharged from World War I army service, Pope Saint Pius X died. He had taken a first step toward liturgical reform by recommending daily Communion when possible, and directing that little children should be allowed to make their First Communion as soon as they reached the age of reason. He issued “an instruction on church music which struck at current abuses and aimed at the restoration of congregational singing of the Roman plainchant.” He also “strongly urged daily reading of the Bible — but here the pope’s words did not receive so much heed.” 2
Today’s feast, known as Corpus Christi, is “the very first papally sanctioned universal feast in the history of the Latin Rite.” It was established by Pope Urban IV in 1264. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote two hymns for this feast: Pange Lingua, and Verbum Supernum Prodiens. We know the last two verses of each as the Tantum Ergo, and the O Salutaris Hostia, used for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.3
The Opening Prayer(s) show Communion as inseparably connected to Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass: “Lord Jesus... you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial of your suffering and death.” We also speak of the “sacrament of your body and blood” both as Jesus “living among us” and “a sign that even now we share your life” (Prayer after Communion). Eucharist, then, speaks of a “real presence” of Jesus both among us and in us. By dying and rising with Christ in Baptism (celebrated in Eucharist), we ourselves became his real body, his true flesh and blood. It follows that we are committed to “offer to our brothers and sisters a life poured out in loving service.” Our baptismal consecration as “priests in the Priest” and “victims in the Victim” pledges us to this. What more does today’s liturgy teach us about the Mass?
A Food Unknown
In Deuteronomy 8: 2-3, 14-16 Moses told the people: “The Lord your God... fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your ancestors.” We have seen how the same thing could be said about Eucharist. For our recent ancestors, it was truly “a food unknown.”
Not entirely, of course. They knew enough to adore Christ truly present “under the appearances” of bread and wine. But they knew next to nothing about what these appearances symbolize and speak of. Nor did the priests. Fr. Botte again:
In the mind of a university professor, “liturgy” was the ceremonial part [the “rubrics,” red-print directions in the altar book] of worship emptied of its real content. The goal [of seminary training] was to prepare clerics for correctly carrying out ritual acts... Only it is regrettable that no one ever thought of explaining the liturgical texts and showing the spiritual riches they contain....
Neither the classes of theology, nor those of Scripture, nor those of the liturgy offered material for preaching. The clergy had nothing to say except for moralizing sermons.... They preached out of duty, because it was prescribed, just as they observed the rubrics.
Stop. In today’s Church that recognizes the baptismal consecration of all the faithful as “priests,” anything negative said above about the training and attitude of clerics will have a matching application to the laity. Those who share in Christ’s priesthood by Baptism participate equally with the ordained priests in celebrating the communal act that is the Eucharistic celebration. If the laity are not deeply, knowingly and spiritually involved, the Mass will not be for the community what it should be. 4
And we have seen the effect of that. How many have just dropped out?
Fr. Botte gives the heart of the problem:
The priests of the nineteenth century were not responsible for the veil which the use of Latin had hung between the altar and the nave, but they did nothing to break through this curtain.... Regardless of where we place the responsibility, the harm was profound.... The faithful had nothing more to sustain their faith than substitute nourishment, and they lost the meaning of certain values.... This is the heart of the matter. The Mass was a personal obligation for each Christian, imposed arbitrarily by a positive law of the Church. Forgotten was the idea that Sunday Mass is the central meeting of the people of God where all the faithful come together to hear the word of God and to be nourished by the bread of life.... Left to themselves, the faithful became more and more isolated in a religious individualism and narrow moralism whose ideal was to have each one work on personal salvation by avoiding mortal sin.
One look at the congregation during a partially-filled Sunday Mass is enough to convince us this false theology has not yet been overcome. Where do the people sit? All together, as would be taken for granted at a family meal? Or spread throughout the church, “isolated in a religious individualism” that lets each one participate on their own terms?
Is it taken for granted that all sing, as they would at a birthday party? Or do many see this level of participation as an option of personal choice?
Why do some still fear to take the host in their hand at Communion? We know the custom of receiving on the tongue dates from the days when the laity were considered unworthy to touch the host. Or even to enter the sanctuary. Much less to consider themselves equal participants with the clergy in the communal worship of the Church. This is a surviving sign of the old theology in which “the clergy prayed entirely in place of and in the name of the community. As a result, the faithful were only remotely involved and paid attention to their own personal devotion.”
Some Catholics will fight to retain the bells that were and again are rung during the “Consecration” at Mass. Whether one is pro or con, all should know that both the historical and current reason for them is rooted in the congregation’s presumed ignorance about the Mass. So speaks Rome:
From a long and attentive catechesis and education in liturgy, a particular liturgical assembly may be able to take part in the Mass with such attention and awareness that it has no need of this signal at the central part of the Mass....The opposite may be presumed in a parish church, where there is a different level of liturgical and religious education and where often people who are visitors or are not regular churchgoers take part. In these cases the bell as a signal is entirely appropriate and is sometimes necessary... in order to elicit joy and attention. 5
In other words, the bells are an admission of failure. But if the shoe fits....
“My flesh, for the life of the world”
In John 6:51-58: Jesus says, “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
His hearers found this hard to accept. And so should we, if we are not aware that the only way bread can become the body of Christ is through the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, death and resurrection. God himself could not just take bread and declare it a human body. That would be a contradiction in terms. Any “nature” is a structure ordered to operate in a certain way, and bread cannot act as human. But once God the Son took flesh as a human being and acted in his human nature until he could say, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do,” then “transubstantiation” became possible. To exist “in flesh and blood” today, all Jesus needs to do is be present in a way that speaks of and makes present to us all he said and did in the body he had while on earth. If he had never had a human body, or had not used it to unite us to himself in the mystery of his dying and rising, there would be no way bread and wine could become a human body. But once Jesus did what he needed to do in his body, God can make exist now as his true flesh and blood anything that can express the life he lived and still lives for us. Bread and wine are apt signs to express that.
When we receive Communion, we should be conscious that this is the fruit — and can only be the fruit — of the sacrifice we have celebrated during the Eucharistic Prayer. Without that sacrifice, it would be impossible. That is why we do not “give Communion” ordinarily except within the celebration of Mass.
One bread, one body
1Corinthians 10:16-17 gives a reason why bread is an apt sign to express the meaning of Jesus’ life: The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Bread is many grains of wheat made one as bread — as we are many individuals made one body in Christ. We would do well to ponder what else bread and wine can symbolize.
Mass is the communal act of the whole Church and of all who are present.
Participate in Mass as actively and fully as the presiding priest does.
1 From Silence to Participation, Pastoral Press, National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 1988, pp. 2-8, 24. 2 Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1990. 3 Kevin Knight, Catholic Encyclopedia, 2010, and Wikipedia. See www.newadvent.org. 4 See Vatican II, “Sacred Liturgy,” nos. 7 and 11: “Pastors of souls must, therefore, realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, their obligation gores further than simply ensuring that the laws governing valid and lawful celebration are observed. They must also ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it.” I once quoted this in a retreat to priests, after which the bishop commented to me: “Well, you lost them on that one, but keep trying!” 5 See The Congregation for Divine Worship, Volume 8 of its official publication, Notitiae, in 1972. For arguments pro and con, google “ringing of bells during Mass.”
6 John 17:4. See also John 19:30. View Today's Readings Here