With the new year, I am introducing a new feature that I am hoping to publish at least once a month on the parish website and in print. It will be called “Liturgy and Life.” That’s because the liturgy – the sacred prayer of the Catholic Church – is at the very core and center of our life. It is the most important thing that we do as a Christian community.
In this feature, I will try to run the gamut between addressing some detailed questions (why we do particular actions in the liturgy and what the symbolism behind them is) and some “big picture” questions such as, what is at the heart of the Mass, why we need the priesthood, what it means to pray, and so on.
If you have any topics you are curious about and would like me to address in this feature, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the parish office or in person (513-734-4041 or 513-553-3267. email@example.com).
Incense and Sacrifice
I wanted to start today with the practice of incensing at Mass, since I have used that a lot in the Masses of the Christmas season. You might remember incense coming up recently in the Scripture readings at the Mass for Epiphany on January 6th (called frankincense there). From ancient times long before the coming of Christ, incense has been used as a sign of our prayers rising up to heaven (cf. Psalm 141, “Our Lord let my prayer be as incense in your sight, and the lifting up of my hands [in prayer] as an evening sacrifice”).
When Our Lord walked the earth 2,000 years ago, incense was used at the altar for the animal sacrifices offered to the Lord, such as when a goat or bull or turtle dove was offered by the priest to God as an oblation for the people, in reparation for their sins and in gratitude to God. In the new covenant, we offer up gifts of bread and wine rather than animal or grain sacrifices.
What our ancient Jewish ancestors practiced out of faith in God has been perfected, now that God has sent His only Son to be the one true and eternal High Priest to mediate the love of God the Father. Jesus Christ offered up His own life on the Cross for us in sacrifice, in atonement for the sins of all mankind – every sin committed by every person throughout human history.
The Holy Mass is the “unbloody sacrifice” – the making-present of the fruits and merits of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary – so that the power of the Cross touches us right where we are in our own lives today.
During the Mass, Jesus Christ is both the priest – the offerer of the sacrifice – and the victim – the one being offered in sacrifice. The ordained priest standing at the altar acts is privileged, by the grace he receives in the sacrament of holy orders, to act in the very person of Jesus Christ the High Priest, effecting the sacrifice.
So the Church has continued to use incense at Mass, to remind us that it is the sacrifice of Christ. While its use is no longer required at Mass, it is certainly encouraged, especially on the more solemn feast days. (I’ll have a column later on what makes a feast day a “solemn” one).
Receiving Communion at Mass
I celebrate many Masses, such as weddings and funerals, where a significant number of non-Catholics are in attendance. These can be a little awkward when it comes to Communion time, because there is a lot of confusion about receiving Communion among non-Catholics. But I have found that even a lot of cradle Catholics do not always fully understand what receiving Communion is about and when or if they should receive.
Entering into bodily Communion with the Lord should be the highlight of our life because when we receive His holy Body and Blood in Holy Communion, we are more closely united to Him than at any other time of our life. It is also a “pledge of future glory” as St. Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher on the Eucharist, famously instructed, pointing ahead to our Heavenly Communion with the Blessed Trinity. It should go without saying that receiving Communion is a tremendous privilege.
But as in all things in life, with great privilege comes great responsibility. Catholics have always believed that the act of choosing to enter into Communion with Our Lord is one of commitment. We can not separate being in Communion with Jesus Christ and in Communion with His Church (because the Church is joined to Him as His mystical bride). So when we say “Amen” as we receive the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord, we are essentially making a promise to God that we believe and hold everything the Church teaches, and are committing to follow Jesus’ commandments and be His Disciple.
For example, by receiving Communion, we acknowledge that we believe that what we receive is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine. But we also acknowledge that the Pope is Christ’s vicar on earth, that the priest is necessary to confect the holy sacrifice, and all of the essential doctrine (teachings) of the Church. For example, that marriage is only between one man and one woman, that every human being is sacred from the moment of his or her conception, that every marital act must be open to life and should not be contracepted and so on.
If we don’t believe that or don’t want to commit to that that, then we should not receive Communion. This is the reason that the Church does not practice inter-Communion. For example, Protestants are not permitted to receive Communion in the Catholic Church and Catholics, although allowed to pray in a Protestant service, should not participate in any Communion service within it. Sometimes, Protestants might encourage Catholics to participate, because for them it is considered a sign of hospitality and shared acknowledgment of the importance of the Last Supper. Similarly, they may be offended when told they can’t receive Communion in the Catholic Church because they think that is “inhospitable.” As Catholics, we
should be ready to explain in charity that we simply have different beliefs on what Communion means.
But there is another important aspect for Catholics, often overlooked. The Church holds us to the obligation to attend Sunday Mass each and every weekend unless there is a valid reason for not attending (sick children who need to be tended to at home, serious illness, lack of transportation, and so forth). But that obligation is to attend Mass, not to receive Holy Communion each time. The minimum requirement to receive Holy Communion is once per year during Easter season. Although the Church encourages people to receive Holy Communion frequently, we should only do so with due and serious preparation.
Part of this preparation is the Communion fast: we must refrain from all food and drink (except water) for at least one hour before Communion time. (medical necessity excepted). If we break that fast, even accidentally, we should refrain from receiving Communion.
More importantly, the Church teaches us that we must be in a state of grace in order to receive, and if we are not, then we should refrain. That means that we are not conscious of any serious sins that have not yet been sacramentally confessed. When considering whether a sin is grave (serious), we should not just go with a “gut feeling” or instinct, but rather learn what types of sins the Church teaches are grave. The Church traditionally has used the term “mortal sin,” one that is serious enough that it destroys our friendship with God until we allow Our Lord to repair it in the confessional, through His priest.
This is a bit of a complicated topic, because the seriousness of a sin depends partly on the motive and understanding of the person disobeying God. So if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me or any other priest about it.
But the Church also teaches that there are sins which are objectively grave. That means that, by the nature of the act, they are a serious offense against God. Some of these are obvious: murder, physically or abusive behavior, theft, abortion and so on. But some are less well known or even ignored, because the sins have become so entrenched in our culture. For example, for a married couple practicing contraception, they are not in a state of grace. Similarly for a couple who are living together and enjoying marital relations without first entering into the sacrament of matrimony. Since they are not in a state of grace, they should not receive Communion until they have been to confession (but again, this does not mean they are no longer required to attend Mass). Deliberately missing Sunday Mass is also grave.
This brings up the question of what to do if you can not receive Communion at Mass on a particular day. During the Communion rite, you should usually remain seated. It has become a widespread custom for some to come in the Communion line and ask the priest or deacon for a blessing by crossing their arms in front of them. That is OK, too. In either case, it is important to remember that the decision to receive Communion or not is always up to the communicant. You should never ask someone why he or she is not receiving Communion. That is often personal and should not be considered our business. The appropriate response, if asked, may be simply “that is personal.”
St. Paul warns Christians against receiving Communion unworthily (see I Cor. 11:27-28) and reminds us we should examine our conscience before unthinkingly receiving Holy Communion. This is good advice for us to take to heart. We should never take this gift for granted and, when we do receive Holy Communion, always strive to receive worthily.
I also highly recommend a video series the parishes own called “Why We Worship” by Dr. Brant Pitre. We can loan it out upon request.
I have been recently getting some questions about when and why we receive Communion under different forms (also called kinds or species). That is, sometimes we distribute just the Host (the consecrated bread) and other times both the Host and the Precious Blood (consecrated wine).
There is a lot of history behind that, but we should start with some basics: At the holy Mass, every priest is given the sacred power to transform the bread and wine offered into the Body and Blood of Christ. After he says the prayer of consecration, what is on the altar is no longer bread (even thought it looks and tastes like it) but the Body of Christ. What looks like wine ceases to be wine but becomes the Blood of Christ. So it is inaccurate to say that at Communion time we are receiving “the bread” or “the wine” (as I unfortunately often hear people say). What we receive is much, much more: the True Presence of Our Lord and Savior.
At the same time, the Church has always held the doctrine (teaching) that goes by the technical name, concomitance. This means that since the substance of Christ present in what was formerly bread and wine is not divisible, the real presence of Christ is fully present in both the Host and Precious Blood alone. Or, perhaps a simpler way to put it, when someone receives Communion under the form of the Host alone, he is receiving the fullness of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. Similarly, if he receives under the form of the Precious Blood alone, he is receiving the very same thing: the fullness of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
I stress this because sometimes people complain when both forms are not offered at Mass, as if they are receiving something “less” when they receive the Host alone. This is not the case, and instead we should focus on the extraordinary gratitude that is fitting for the gift we are privileged to receive, regardless of which form it is given under.
For many centuries of the Church’s history, the lay faithful were permitted to receive only the Host and not the Precious Blood. (The priest must consume both in order to effect the sacrifice of the Mass).
This practice changed only very recently, in the 1970s, when the Church in the United States allowed the Precious Blood to be distributed as an option, at the discretion of the priest celebrant, if and only if certain conditions are met first. I’ve italicized all those qualifiers, because there is some confusion here. Some people think there is a “right” to receive Communion under both forms, but this is not the case.
Why was this option introduced? There is some controversy on this question, so it depends on who you ask. Some argue that it was to make the visible symbol of Holy Communion more obvious. (For instance, it looks on the surface a bit more like what happened at the last supper when the Lord shared the Passover bread and wine with His disciples, after transforming it into His own Body and Blood). But increasing evidence points to the likelihood that many of the changes made to the form of the Mass after the Second Vatican Council were introduced to make the Mass more similar to a Protestant worship service. If we remember our history, this was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Revolt of the 16th century: many of the Protestant reformers rejected the Church’s teaching on the difference between priest and layperson, so they demanded that, because the priest received both species, the laity should too. (This is a column for another day, because ironically, they were no longer receiving the true Body and Blood of Christ).
But back to the question of the conditions that the celebrant evaluates to determine whether or not to exercise the option of distributing the Precious Blood. They’re quite complicated and are detailed in several different liturgical guidelines priests must follow, but I’ll summarize a few of them here.
First, their must be enough ministers to distribute both species. The deacon is the ordinary minister of the Precious Blood, but a lay minister may be appointed to do so in the case of necessity. The Church guidelines indicate that extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should not be employed unless strictly necessary. (Unfortunately, this guideline is widely ignored in many parishes.) So when a deacon is not present, I often distribute just the Host. As a practical matter, at some of our Masses (especially the Saturday evening Masses) we do not have enough extraordinary ministers, so I usually suspend there as well.
Second, there must be a predictable amount of Precious Blood to be consumed. If too little wine is consecrated, then not all of the faithful will be able to receive. The guidelines indicate that there should be unity in the way Communion is received. So, for instance, if only half of the people end up receiving It, the Precious Blood should not be distributed. On the other hand, if too much wine is consecrated, that is even worse because it is not permitted to reserve the Precious Blood. All of It must be consumed during the Mass. This can be awkward, because, although it is no longer wine, it still has the effects of wine on the senses. There may be too much to easily consume. As a result, I often suspend the Precious Blood at funerals or crowded special-occasion Masses where it is unpredictable how much will be consumed.
Third, as a practical matter, it makes the Mass much more complicated. The guidelines require that all vessels, including the chalices, be thoroughly purified (cleansed of small traces of the Host and Precious Blood) during the Mass or immediately afterward by the priest or deacon. Since the priest and deacon usually greet people after the Mass, this means that the purification – a minor part of the Mass – can become unduly long. Quite frankly, I like simplicity in the Mass and don’t like the extra complication of multiple vessels and extended purification.
Fourth, the instructions indicate that the Precious Blood should be treated with the utmost care. Especially with an increasing number of elderly people, with less steady hands, the risk of spilling the Precious Blood increases if it is distributed.
Much more to say on questions related to Holy Communion – because they are so important – but in the meantime, if you have any questions at all about this, please ask me after Mass or set up a time to talk to me. I am happy to make time to do so.
Holy Week and More
Last month we celebrated Holy Week. As I have implemented a few more of the traditional practices for those celebrations, my “sources” tell me that several people have asked about them. For example, why did I take off my shoes at the Good Friday liturgy of the Passion?
First, some general background: All of the Masses and special liturgies of the Church are contained in an instruction book called the Roman Missal. (It’s the big red book you see me reading from at Mass). That missal has both the words the priest says, but also the “rubrics,” instructions printed in red telling the priest what to do. This book hasn’t changed that all much in the 50 years or so since the Church revised the Mass and the liturgy. It has been tweaked here and there, especially in 2011 when it was re-translated from the original Latin.
The book usually just lists the actions; it doesn’t give the history or meaning behind them. That is something that the liturgists and scholars of the sacraments teach seminarians.
It does label a lot of things as optional, so the priest celebrant can decide whether to do it or not. I am a “by the book” kind of a guy, so do most of the options. Many of them are ancient practices chock full of important symbolism developed over the centuries. But the truth is that a lot of the things I am doing are not new; they have always been in the instruction book. Unfortunately, a lot of priests in the period between about 1970 and 2000 simply ignored those instructions. That has caused a lot of harm in the church, but I’ll save that topic for a later date.
On to the particulars: At Good Friday, the missal instruction expresses a preference for the priest to take off his shoes before he removes his chasuble (outer Mass robe) as he prostrates himself (lies down face flat) in front of the altar. In Sacred Scripture and ancient biblical culture, that is a sign that someone is on holy ground. For example, when Moses approached the presence of God in the burning bush, the Lord tells him “Don’t come any closer, take off your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3) Moses complies and also “hid his face because he was afraid to look upon God.”
As priests celebrating Good Friday, we take off our chasuble (a symbol of our priesthood) revealing that we too are sinful men, like all the faithful whom we are privileged to shepherd, before God’s Cross. As we kneel before the Cross, we are on the most sacred of sacred grounds: Cavalry, where the Son of God surrendered His life in sacrifice for us so that we could be saved from eternal damnation. We hide our face like Moses, almost fearful to gaze on the intensely beautiful yet terrible love of the Cross and the face of Christ crucified. As we remember Jesus offering His Body and Blood on the Cross to us for the sake of our salvation, we prostrate ourselves in adoration, just as did the Magi at Jesus’ birth, when they first recognized Him as the Son of God in the flesh. “We adore you O Christ and we praise you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”
I did have some questions regarding what is called the “Triduum” (Latin for “three days” –the celebration of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil).
On Holy Thursday we celebrate Our Lord giving us for the first time the priesthood and the holy Mass; on Good Friday, we celebrate the Passion (Suffering) of Our Lord Jesus Cross to save us from our sins; at Easter Vigil we stay up into the middle of the night, anticipating the greatest mystery of Our Faith: Our Lord rising from the grave, conquering sin and death.
I had some questions about Holy Thursday, especially the “washing of the feet.” Sometimes you will hear this called by the liturgical handle, mandatum. That’s the Latin word for commandment, because the Gospel has Jesus telling His Apostles, as He washes their feet, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13).
Why didn’t I do that this past Holy Thursday? Lots of reasons. First off, it is only an option for that Mass, not a required element. The instruction in the missal basically says that the pastor can decide to include it if there is a good pastoral reason. The custom is not deeply rooted in parish Masses. It was more a monastic tradition, for example, for an abbot to wash the feet of his monks, or for a bishop to wash his priests’ feet.
My “sources” tell me that a lot of people didn’t like it. In fact, some skipped the Mass because of it. I can certainly understand that, because washing other people’s feet is generally considered strange in our American culture, if not something extremely intimate. In the days when Our Lord walked the earth, it was what a servant would do for His master. As people walked on dirty dusty roads (no cars of course) often with sandals or even barefoot, there was a practical need for the servant to do this. Even then, it was considered a menial or demeaning task, and that is the point: Jesus was – shockingly enough to St. Peter and the Apostles – showing hem that He, their Lord, was not afraid to (as we would say) “get his hands dirty” in humbling Himself and lowering Himself to serve mankind: “The Son of Man come not to be served but to serve – and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:28) So Jesus is revealing to them how they, His first priests, must also humble themselves to serve the faithful.
On top of this, though, there has been a great deal of confusion and controversy about it in the U.S. Because it was so closely connected to the priesthood itself, the Church had for centuries prohibited women from receiving the washing. Many U.S. Bishops (disappointingly in my opinion) simply looked the other way when many priests disobeyed the Church because of feminist pressure to “be included.” Pope Francis very recently changed this instruction. Many parishes have the people, not the priest, washing each other. That’s never been part of our tradition and is still in violation of the rubrics. Rather than wade into the confusion, I thought it best simply not to exercise the (distracting) option. More important to focus on honoring Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. More on the meaning of that Eucharistic procession soon.