Page 4, 29th April 1977

29th April 1977
Page 4
Page 4, 29th April 1977 — Vatican Council asserted again profound significance and centrality of Eucharist

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Vatican Council asserted again profound significance and centrality of Eucharist

I BELIEVE that one of the deep worries behind the criticism or opposition of many so-called conservative Catholics in regard to the changes which have taken place in the liturgy since the Vatican Council has been the fear that the whole significance of the Mass and of litUrgical action is somehow being whittled away — its length and ritual cut down, its vocabulary made banal, its overall meaning steadily reduced.

It cannot be denied that in some ways or in some quarters this has happened, and — insofar as it has — it is to my mind decidedly regrettable.

Yet in fact the Vatican Council asserted again and again the profound significance and centrality of the Eucharist for Christian life: it called indeed for a certain simplification in ritual and for a greater preoccupation with communicability, 'but precisely so that the faithful as a whole should be enabled to participate more intelligibly and more actively in the public worship of God.

The intention was always positive, not negative: to increase true participation in the mystery, not to reduce the mystery. To do this a basic blockage between the whole people of God and the Mass had to be removed, a blockage which had developed over many hundreds of years.

This blockage was no less than the liturgical side of the wider clericalisation of the Church, For centuries the Mass had in practice been shaped with the clergy, not the people, chiefly in mind.

Priests knew Latin, so Latin would be its language; the priest's intention was the allimportant one, so the multiplication of "private Masses" linked to stipends requiring the full "intention" of one priest became the norm, even though this meant the multiplication of "the ,Sacrament of Unity" in a way which certainly did not sacramentalise unity as when

dozens of separate Masses were said simultaneouslx in some monastic or seminary crypt. Again, it was the priest's Communion which really mattered — so he would eat the bread and drink the cup hallowed by the words of institution said here and now while the laity would receive the bread alone, very probably from the tabernacle where it had lain since consecration at some other Mass.

At point after point the Eucharist had in this way been clericalised from the Middle Ages onwards, and the central liturgical decision of Vatican 11 was to reverse the process: to set about declericalising it.

Of course, declericalisation had in fact already begun. It was an absolutely crucial aspect of the whole Liturgical Movement, at least since the days of Dom Beauduin, and Pius XII had already moved some way in this direction.

It is this central idea which really gives unity to what the Vatican Council intended to do, even if it was seldom spelt out so explicitly as I have done here.

Unfortunately, there are many people who have never understood this central point at all. They have indeed accepted the new norms: they have cut something out here, added something there; but they have never had any sense of what it was all about.

If the liturgical reform has in places fallen so flat, it is just because of this.

Changes have been explained, but not the meaning behind the changes. Above all, the basic clericalist pattern of the Mass remains in many places almost as strong as ever and many priests appear to see any serious decrease in the liturgical gap between them and the laity as a major threat: the hard Communion rail must remain in place, together with many another symbol keeping the laity away from too close a participation in what remains, only too clearly, the priest's business.

Now the high point of the Eucharist is Communion: there can be no doubt at all that the "Eat of this, drink of this" is what it all leads up to at the level of the ritual, of the Sacrament itself.

And it is just here that the medieval clericalist structure of the Mass most clearly divides people from priest. In contradiction to Jesus' own words "Drink of this all of you," the Cup of his Blood of the Covenant would be reserved for the priest alone, systematically establishing at the level of the central sacrament two types of Christian participation.

How many devout lay people and nuns have thirsted all their live;; to drink of that cup, and never once was it given them! At no point was Catholic practice more clericalist, more disrespectful of the Scriptures, more' out of harmony with the judgment of all other Churches.

It was, then, of profound significance that the Council in principle restored Communion under both kinds, even if its first .proposals for this were rather limited (as they were also for the use of the vernacular).

After the Council, the occasions for this have been officially enlarged more and more while the new Eucharistic Prayers all simply presuppose that the laity are now communicating under both kinds, and this has in fact become the practice in many places. This does not, of course, in any way deny the "validity" of Communion in one kind, but it is a recognition that the full meaning of the Mass requires that a very serious effort be made to maintain in normal circumstances the total symbolism of the sacrament intact for both priest and people.

It is the nature of a sacrament to make manifest its inner meaning, and the inner meaning of the Eucharist (the uniting of men with God through the new covenant of Jesus Christ) is simply not made fully manifest when the laity are systematically excluded from sharing in the symbolic Cup of the Covenant. It was for such reasons (set out very carefully in The Tablet

of February 2f) that I decided after much thought that I can and will no longer celebrate Mass when this is not allowed, unless there be very special reasons to justify it in particular circumstances.

What has enormously impressed me in the subsequent weeks has been the response of people to my decision: I have received literally dozens of letters, and hardly any of them have expressed any disagreement. The great majority have thanked me most movingly for my symbolic action and urged me to stand firm.

Priests and laity, men and women, monks, nuns, recent converts— the range of my correspondents has been striking,. from Scotland. from England, and from overseas.

And one of the most striking things is that they have clearly included both "progressives" and "conservatives": drinking from the Cup of Christ's Blood is not a trendy new thing, or a discardable old thing, and the importance of doing it is felt by both ritualists and antiritualists.

The deep desire for this quite remarkably appears to bind together people who otherwise appreciate, and those who are otherwise disquieted by, recent liturgical change.

If one parish priest wrote to tell me how they now give Communion in both kinds to about a thousand people very Sunday in his parish without undue difficulty as some hundred people have been commissioned to assist in distribution, another person wrote sadly that "as a result of the wanton episcopal disobedience in the matter I have left the Roman Church and gone where I am presented with the chalice."

Many people wrote of how they look hard for churches where the cup is given or — if they live in such a parish — how painful holidays can be in a parish where it is not given.

A nun — among many wrote that she will "go to great lengths to find churches where the chalice is offered to the faithful at every Mass," and adds: "I am grateful to you for upholding what is very central and precious." A Scottish laywoman writes that she hopes all this "will influence other clergy into seeing that they are offering a substandard Mass. Life is too short to follow institutional authority indefinitely when it is offcourse."

A writer from outside Britain

quotes the sort of situation which reveals so much about the difference between a clericalist and a spiritual approach to the Mass: "In 1972 I was stay ing for some days as a guest in a presbytery where the parish priest was a friend of 20 years' acquaintance.

"Obeying the direction that Mass should be in the presence of at least one of the faithful, this priest was grateful for my offer to serve and thus provide a congregation.

"As it had been some years at least since the last Eucharist which we shared I suggested the occasion had the special nature which current rulings deemed prerequisite to Communion of the laity under both species. My priestly friend did not sce it that way!"

The deep longing of many ordinary Christians for the full Sacrament is absolutely clear. Another Scottish woman writes as follows: "I can't tell you how often I have thirsted for the Blood of Christ — and I am sure I am only one of thousands. You have spoken for us all."

A university professor pointed out how The Tablet, in the same issue which carried my statement, contained an advertisement for a cemetery, the funds going to a clerical charity, adding that Mass was offered "over four thousand times each year" for those buried there.

"I have always been bullied," he wrote, "by this stress on quantity in the Mass and its `clerical' roots seem obvious again . . the Mass is the point at which clericalism is made or unmade.. . the Mass is so full of wonder and richness, and nothing, just nothing of that comes out in so many celebrations."

Finally. a recent convert remarks: "Both the physical sensation and the spiritual deprivation of being denied the Cup are things I find hard to hear, and indeed I could not bear them if they weren't, for me, very unusual experiences.

"Taking the cup into my hands and drinking from it is the point to which the whole Mass leads — when it is not there I feel a strange emptiness and sense of loss.

"It is a sense of loss of which I have myself been strongly aware these days, and 1 wonder what priest who loves the Mass wouldnot be but as one of the many priests who have written to me: 'It must be painful to you, a deprivation, but not in vain. A kind of hunger-strike'."

1 hOpe that some of the bishops will perhaps find the time to read this and to ask themselves just why they remain so unenthusiastic for a reform which is so clearly positive, not negative, a growth not a reduction, a wonderful assertion of a totally scriptural and ecumenical sort that God's Covenant does matter to each one of us still today, to the laity just as much as to the clergy.

The Communion of the Cup is, alter all, the clearest possible liturgical expression of the greatest insight of Vatican II that we are, all of us, the one and holy Church, the people of God's new covenant.

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