The recent publication of the Eucharistic Norms should not have been necessary. Most of the guidelines can be found in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal which accompanied the new rite of Mass when it was introduced more than 30 years ago. In that time unusual practices have grown up and the document does remind us that they are aberrations.
The misuse of the tabernacle as a kind of store-cupboard crammed full of consecrated hosts is one such aberration which needs to be corrected urgently. The Eucharistic Norms stress a point already made in the General Instruction that the Holy Communion given at a Mass should be from bread consecrated at that Mass. The bizarre practice of going to the tabernacle and giving a large proportion of the congregation communion already consecrated at an earlier Mass is liturgically inept. So widespread is the practice that it is now imitated in Anglican churches. St Paul’s Cathedral in London is one such example. Its lack of a sure liturgical touch led to a recent relocation of the Blessed Sacrament chapel to one of the busiest and noisiest areas of the cathedral. Its previous position in one of the most peaceful corners of the building, overlooked by William Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World”, was really conducive to private prayer.
But this is a cathedral where until recently a canon-in-residence greeted the congregation with the words “Good morning ladies and gentlemen!” It was thought that the Eucharistic Norms would insist on keeping to the prescribed greeting at the beginning of Mass. “In the name of the Father ...” are the first words a worshipper wants to hear from the priest’s mouth.
There is unfortunately a lack of accountability over matters of worship in the Catholic Church and in other Christian traditions. “Father knows best” is no longer true and when there are low standards it is up to the people of God to expect and demand better, even in cathedrals.
Iwitnessed the deep reverence of a lay person on a recent visit to Rome. Attending a Mass for the American community I noticed that James Caviezel, who played the part of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ was present. A few days later he was received by the Pope. At the Mass he was the only member of the congregation who knelt to receive communion. (He had attended Mass on nearly every day of the filming but on one occasion the long make-up session had begun particularly early preventing him from attending the morning celebration. The priest however was determined that he shouldn’t be left out and so brought the communion to the make-up rooms). Caviezel has extraordinary charisma and dignity. Kneeling at the back of the church he remained on his knees for some time following the Mass.
This was no outward show of religious piety; hardly anyone had recognised him. He told me he was sad at some of the carping about the Passion and the ill-informed comment he had seen in the British press. I was pleased however when he acknowledged the enthusiasm of The Sunday Times, for which I write. A cynical reaction in the press is hardly surprising. The failure of Britain’s church leaders to seize the moment provided by such a film was, I thought, the saddest commentary on our church life. The current showing of the Passion is by far the biggest religious event in Britain this year.
Pope John Paul II is a Christian leader who does seize the moment. On the Sunday of the Rome visit I heard the Pope recite the Angelus in a strong voice at midday. I had not realised that his address actually precedes the Angelus and after its recitation he begins a series of informal greetings to the pilgrims assembled far below his study window in St Peter’s square. Thousands of people waved and cheered throughout the greetings. Some even broke into spontaneous song when he mentioned the name of their home town.
In this the 26th year of his pontificate the festivity and enthusiasm he generates seems as strong as in the first. Even with my restaurant Italian I could understand the strength of his condemnation of terrorism. The Pope does not pussyfoot on difficult issues.
In the 1990s church leaders in Britain were shamefully silent on the question of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia. Ten years later, and in a desperate international situation, some of them are turning to follies such as cyber-churches or attending jazz Masses for Ascension Day. Such diversions may be amusing, and they provide easy headlines, but they have little to do with the divine commission: “Proclaim my Gospel to the whole of Creation.”