Gutting the Mystery out of the Mystery – Catholic World Report

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While the doctrinal exposition in “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” is beyond reproach, a whole dimension of our Eucharistic problem was left untouched.

Gutting the Mystery out of the Mystery – Catholic World Report
Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle, wearing a protective mask, right, attends a Nov. 16, 2021, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Long-awaited, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” has finally arrived. It is a superb re-statement of traditional Catholic teaching on what the Sacred Liturgy calls “the mystery of faith.” Of course, the “big” question was how or if the bishops would deal with the problematic public figures of the Church whose civil acts contradict the mystery of the Eucharist. Secular media – and, regrettably, not a few Catholic media outlets – got the answer wrong; the bishops did deal with that issue, quite handily and we should be grateful to George Weigel for spelling that out in great detail.

So, now that the document is written, all is well, and we can all go off on our merry way? Hardly. While the doctrinal exposition is beyond reproach, a whole dimension of our Eucharistic problem was left untouched. I am referring to how that doctrine is liturgically enacted. Perhaps the bishops thought the re-statement was sufficient; perhaps they thought addressing particulars of worship was out of place; perhaps they thought the problem areas will best be handled in the upcoming three years of “Eucharistic revival.” If the last thought is the case, let me offer some serious practices that need serious attention. As Catholics, we are not disembodied heads; we are flesh-and-blood creatures; therefore, what we say we believe needs to be reinforced by the signs and symbols of the Sacred Liturgy.

Truth be told, I have not heard of a single theologian or priest contesting the settled doctrine of the Eucharist. However, in my capacity as an editor of two national magazines, spanning three decades, I have never ceased to receive complaints of how the lived liturgy undermines that settled teaching. Yes, lex orandi, lex credendi.

The fundamental difficulty in “owning” our Eucharistic doctrine is that our rites have been gutted of “mystery,” the very lead word of this episcopal text. In the last encyclical of St. John Paul’s life, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he declared that his goal in penning that letter was to rouse the whole Church to “Eucharistic amazement.” Amazement happens when mystery is properly celebrated, bringing in its wake awe and wonder. I see very little amazement in congregations over the past forty years, and I believe that is so because of the introduction of so many practices that undermine amazement. In actuality, I have found that most people attracted to the Usus Antiquior are drawn there, precisely to avoid those things that have drained the Usus Recentior of power.

With this in mind, I shall present a list (by no means exhaustive) of mistaken directions taken, in no particular priority order (since all of them together have brought about Eucharistic “malaise”; let me also note that not one of these “mistaken directions” was called for by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council; indeed, not one of these was even dreamed of, in all likelihood.

How “mystery” has been gutted

Loss of Latin: To be sure, the Council Fathers opened up the possibility for a greater use of the vernacular (e.g., in the Scripture readings, prayer of the faithful), but they were quite clear that Latin should not only be retained in the liturgy but that the faithful ought to be able to respond to the Latin prayers and sing the venerable Gregorian chants.1 Every major religion retains a place of honor for a sacral language, lest the pedestrian override the sacred.2

Movement of the tabernacle: In the Credo of the People of God, Pope Paul VI lovingly referred to the tabernacle as “the living heart of each of our churches.” So, what should we make of the relegation of the tabernacle to a side altar, separate chapel (or closet), resulting in the replacement of Christ at the center, usually by an enthroned priest? Out of sight, out of mind. With the tabernacle off the central axis, should we be surprised by the rise of chit-chat and the entrance of people into their pews resembling their mode of accessing a seat in a movie theater?

Removal of altar rails: Ripping out altar rails signaled the desire to obliterate the very necessary distinction between the sacred and the profane (a good reading of Mircea Eliade’s book of the same title would have provided fair warning). What is enacted in the space around the altar needs to be visually set apart because what is enacted there is entirely removed from our commonplace experience of daily life: Heaven is coming down to earth. With that distinction lost, those of us on earth have had difficulty ascending to Heaven (which is what should be occurring at every Mass).

Communion fast: Prior to Pope Pius XII, the Communion fast began at midnight; it was undoubtedly quite onerous, so that the frequency of Communion advocated by Pope St. Pius X was noted in the breach more than in the observance. Wisely, Pius XII mitigated that fast to three hours for solid foods and one hour for liquids. Pope Paul VI modified the fast even further, to the present discipline, namely, one hour for solid food or liquids. The standard definition of fasting is abstaining from food, so as to experience hunger. The purpose of the Eucharistic fast is to make us feel physical hunger, the better to know the spiritual hunger for the Bread of Life. Without being glib, one can say that if anyone is truly hungry after one hour, that person has an eating disorder. Diminishing the fast has also diminished the uniqueness of Holy Communion. Further, the one-hour fast has taken away from potential recipients the “excuse” for abstaining from Holy Communion when they judge themselves not properly disposed.

Standing for Holy Communion: For centuries, Catholics of the Western Church have knelt to receive their Eucharistic Lord (Eastern Christians historically have stood). The problem is not so much with standing as such but with the lack of any sign of reverence. When standing was first introduced, communicants were told to genuflect before receiving; that was replaced by a supposed profound bow, and that was reduced to a nod of the head. So, standing in line (as in a grocery store) is merely a prelude to finally arriving at the check-out counter. Have we forgotten St. Augustine’s admonition: “No one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it.”?

Yet another benefit of kneeling at an altar rail is that communicants kneeling shoulder to shoulder make much more clear that Holy Communion, after affirming our union with Christ, likewise affirms our communion with one another.

Mass facing the people: Versus populum celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is a true novelty (St. Peter’s in Rome is the exception that proves the rule). In every religion where sacrifice has been offered, from biblical Judaism to the worship of the pagan Greeks and Romans, priest and people face the same direction, presumably facing the Divinity being implored. In the Christian scheme of things, divine worship was conducted facing liturgical east (whence comes the Rising Sun and the Risen Son). The snide dismissal of this posture as “the priest with his back to the people” displays a tremendous ignorance of history and theology. No, it is priest and people facing God together. Ironically, the versus populum position is far more clericalistic because, perforce, it makes the priest the center of attention, resulting (even unintentionally) in his functioning as a kind of ring-master.

The early Christians believed that the Lord would come again in glory not only from the East but during the celebration of the Eucharist. And so, in St. Peter’s Basilica (which faces west), at the beginning of the anaphora or Eucharistic prayer, the deacon urged the faithful to “turn toward the Lord” – and the whole assembly turned toward the front door of the Basilica, turning their backs on the Pope!

Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion: In promulgating Immensae Caritatis (1973), Paul VI gave very precise indications for recourse to the non-ordained for distributing Holy Communion; those norms were subsequently incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Having spoken in over 90 dioceses of the United States over the years, I can say with total confidence that I have never seen a situation in which those norms are verified.

Lay distribution of the Holy Sacrament diminishes two sacraments at one and the same moment: the august nature of the Eucharist (if anyone can distribute It, what’s the big deal?) and the unique identity of the ordained minister. St. Thomas Aquinas, in one of his hymns composed for the feast of Corpus Christi, Sacris Solemniis, has us sing, “as only the priest can confect (the Eucharist), only does he distribute.”

In all too many places, circumlocutions are used to obfuscate the clear meaning of the proper liturgical terminology of “extraordinary” ministers, so that we hear of “Eucharistic ministers,” “special ministers,” and even worse, “bread/wine ministers”!3This widespread abuse feeds into the modern American mentality of “get ’em in, get ’em out,” as well as the theologically and liturgically malformed notion that “active/actual” participation requires getting as many people up on the stage as possible.

Communion in the hand: This practice arose in the Low Countries, France, and Germany after the Council. Pope Paul consulted the worldwide episcopate about this phenomenon, with the vast majority of bishops voting strongly against it. In Memoriale Domini (1969), the Pope, fearing a schism, acquiesced to the will of the disobedient countries, allowing the continuation of Communion in the hand, there and only there. But it didn’t end in those places; it spread like wildfire. As in many other countries, some liturgists and bishops in the United States sought to get on the bandwagon, with the issue being raised several times for a vote of our bishops, each time defeated. Finally, through the machinations of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (then president of the episcopal conference), the illicit polling of absent bishops through mail-in ballots (!) brought about victory for those proponents in 1977.

“What’s wrong with Communion in the hand?” “Is the tongue any holier than the hand?” Those superficial queries miss some fundamental points of doctrine. We are not receiving ordinary bread in Holy Communion, but the very Bread of Life, Christ Himself. Therefore, our mode of reception ought to reflect the uniqueness of the action. Almighty God, speaking to us in Psalm 81, invites us: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” Some argue that adults feed themselves; they are not fed like children. The truth of the matter, however, is that as we approach the holy altar, we do so, precisely, as children of our Heavenly Father. As a matter of fact, being fed in the ancient world was a sign of hospitality and even of royalty (we belong to the royal people redeemed by Christ). We still have a vestige of that idea as newly-weds feed each other the first pieces of the wedding cake.

Some counter that Communion in the hand was the practice of the ancient Church, which theory has been widely questioned.4 Indeed, there are many practices of the ancient Church that few would want revived – like lifelong penance! What is certainly uncontestable is that for over a millennium, reception on the tongue was universal.

When did a call for its abandonment occur? At the time of the Protestant Reformation. As Thomas Cranmer was fashioning the liturgical books in England, he consulted the radical revolutionary, Martin Bucer. Bucer strongly condemned reception on the tongue for two reasons, in his judgment: it gave undue reverence to the “bread,” as it called it; it elevated priests above the laity (see below the shocking bluntness about his aim in banning administration of Holy Communion on the tongue).5 And so, we should not be surprised that 70% of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence (the very statistic that precipitated episcopal alarm) and have a truncated understanding of the Sacred Priesthood (and a concomitant decline in priestly vocations) since the introduction of Communion in the hand more than four decades ago.

Some concluding thoughts

As I said at the outset, of the eight problematic liturgical usages I have highlighted, it is important to note that not a single one of them has its origins in the Second Vatican Council, while many of them actually arose through disobedience and disregard for existing norms. The confluence of all eight areas has undoubtedly led to a Eucharistic melt-down.

A wake-up call came my way some years ago as a man, who had not been to Mass since 1967, informed me of his reaction to his return in 1999 for the funeral of his mother: “What happened while I was away? The priest chatted us up from across something that looked like an ironing board. A woman gave out Communion to people standing, who took It in their own hands. I felt like I had walked into a different religion.” That man’s Rip Van Winkle experience should tell us that some things are very wrong.

Simple re-statement of doctrine (even when done very well) is insufficient; the doctrine must be bolstered by the signs and symbols we employ. We have all heard the remark of the Fundamentalist pastor who gently prodded us: “If I believed what you Catholics say you believe about the Eucharist, I would have to crawl up the center aisle on all fours!” That’s the appropriate response to “mystery.”

The present document of the episcopal conference is excellent, as far as it goes. With the three-year “Eucharistic revival” being launched, would it be vain to hope that our liturgical praxis be reviewed and, where necessary, corrected?6 To aid in that process, it might be worthwhile to reflect on some of Cardinal Newman’s insights into the nature of liturgy and its development (see some of those below). If the bishops of our nation engage in a genuine examination of liturgical conscience, they could have an impact not only on the Eucharistic faith of Americans, but far beyond our borders.7

I have left aside the matter of liturgical music (which is a whole other can of worms), but I would like to suggest that the words of a hymn coming from the immemorial Liturgy of St. James offer a healthy guide to foster a sense of mystery and a recovery of the sacred, leading us to that awe and wonder proper to one’s approach to our Eucharistic King:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heav’nly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the pow’rs of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
“Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”


Addendum: St. John Henry Cardinal Newman on the Sacred Liturgy

To believe and not to revere, to worship familiarly and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one. Not only the Jewish and Christian religions, which are directly from God, inculcate the spirit of reverence and godly fear, but those other religions which have existed or exist, whether in the East or the South, inculcate the same. Worship, forms of worship — such as bowing the knee, taking off the shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress and the like — are considered as necessary for a due approach to God.

P.S. VIII 5 (30.10.1836)

Every attentive reader of Scripture must be aware what stress is there laid upon the duty of costliness and magnificence in the public service of God.

P.S. VI 295 (23.9.1839)

… did our Saviour say that magnificence in worshipping God, magnificence in His house, in its furniture, and in its decorations, is wrong, wrong since He has come into the world ? Does He discourage us from building handsome Churches, or beautifying the ceremonial of religion? Did He exhort us to niggardness? did He put a slight on architectural skill ? did He imply we should please Him the more, the less study and trouble we gave to the externals of worship ? In rejecting the offering of Herod, did He forbid the devotion of Christians?

P.S. VI 301 (23.9.1839)

This is what He condemned, the show of great attention to outward things, while inward things, which were more important, were neglected. This, He says Himself, in His denunciation of the Pharisees, “These ought ye to have done,” He says, “and not to leave the other,” the inward, “undone.”

P.S. VI 301 – 302 (23.9.1839)

Persons who put aside gravity and comeliness in the worship of God, that they may pray more spiritually, for- get that God is a Maker of all things, visible as well as invisible; that He is the Lord of our bodies as well as of our souls; that He is to be worshipped in public as well as in secret … there are not two Gods, one of mat-ter, one of spirit; one of the Law, and one of the Gospel. There is one God, and He is Lord of all we are, and all we have; and therefore, all we do must be stamped with His seal and signature. We must begin, indeed, with the heart; for out of the heart proceed all good and evil; but while we begin with the heart, we must not end with the heart.

P.S. VI 304 (23.9.1839)

Let us … be at least as exact and as decent in the service of God, as we are in our own persons and our own homes.

P.S. VI 311 (23.9.1839)

The Bible then may be said to give us the spirit of religion; but the Church must provide the body in which that spirit is to be lodged. Religion must be realized in particular acts, in order to its continuing alive.

P.S. II 74 (1.1.1831)

There is no such thing as abstract religion. When persons attempt to worship in this (what they call) more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshipping at all. This frequently happens… Youths, for instance (and perhaps those who should know better than they), sometimes argue with themselves, “What is the need of praying statedly morning and evening? Why use a form of words? Why kneel? Why cannot I pray in bed, or walking, or dressing?” They end in not praying at all. Again, what will the devotion of the country people be, if we strip religion of its external symbols, and bid them seek out and gaze upon the Invisible?

P.S. II 74 (1.1.1831)

We must begin religion with what looks like a form. Our fault will be, not in beginning it as a form, but in continuing it as a form. For it is our duty to be ever striving and praying to enter into the real spirit of our services, and in proportion as we understand them and love them, they will cease to be a form and a task, and will be the real expressions of our minds. Thus shall we gradually be changed in heart from servants into sons of Almighty God.

P.S. Ill 93 – 94 (20.11.1831)

Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason, – for the Church’s authority is from Christ, – being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls.

P.S. II 77 – 78 (1.1.1831)


1So concerned about the near-total abandonment of Latin in the wake of the Council (contrary to the express wishes of the Council Fathers) that Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, all regularly promoted the ongoing use of Latin in the Latin Church.

2This leaves aside how the loss of Latin has contributed to the “balkinization” of the Church, with a parish offering multiple Masses in multiple languages every weekend, destroying any possibility of parochial unity.

3During a visit to one parish, a woman introduced herself to me thus: “I am your ordinary minister of Communion.” “You mean ‘extraordinary’.” “No, I do it every week!

4For a thorough discussion of the history of Communion in the hand, consult: Athanasius Schneider, Dominus Est: It Is the Lord! (Newman House Press, 2008).

5Bucer to Cranmer: “I have no doubt that this usage of not putting these sacraments in the hands of the faithful has been introduced out of a double superstition; firstly, the false honour they wished to show to this sacrament, and secondly the wicked arrogance of priests claiming greater holiness than that of the people of Christ, by virtue of the oil of consecration. . . . As, therefore, every superstition of the Roman Anti-Christ is to be detested, and the simplicity of Christ, and the Apostles, and the ancient Churches, is to be recalled, I should wish that pastors and teachers of the people should be commanded that each is faithfully to teach the people that it is superstitious and wicked to think that the hands of those who truly believe in Christ are less pure than their mouths; or that the hands of the ministers are holier than the hands of the laity; so that it would be wicked, or less fitting, as was formerly wrongly believed by the ordinary folk, for the laity to receive these sacraments in the hand. . . .”

6True renewal or revitalization is only possible when one is willing to admit that mistakes have been made and, equally, to be willing to change course.

7The German bishops have declared that they want their perverse “synodal way” to spread far beyond the confines of their country. Why should something truly good and holy not spread?

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