On holiday in Germany a few weeks ago, I found myself summoned by the bells of the parish church just at the time when the tour schedule allowed us some free time. I wandered across the square to see what was going on. As I had hoped, it was an evening mass, and although a weekday there was a good number of people present for a small village, about 15-20.
The pastor was of early middle age, engaged with the assembly and at ease with his priestly task, and it was clear that both presiding and preaching were a joy to him. There was lots of singing (unaccompanied) and a sense of participation even though no voice was heard except that of the priest. The church building was in exceptionally good order, with an elegant square modern altar at the mouth of the apse, and graced with good liturgical art.
The surprise came at the communion when, having communicated himself, the priest went immediately to the tabernacle at the apse to bring the Reserved Sacrament to the altar for the communion of the faithful.
I was left bemused at this stepping back from a sense of the assembly’s full participation in the Eucharistic action together. At this crucial moment in the Mass, a clear dividing line was drawn in the sand between priest and people, and for no apparent reason. It seemed so at odds with everything else that had been said and done, and with the architectural setting which evidently had been re-designed to facilitate ‘full, conscious and active participation’ by the whole assembly.
Perhaps the priest needed to consume a great many hosts left over from a previous Mass? Perhaps math wasn’t his strong point (but there was less than 20 of us)? Perhaps it was simply a case of old habits dying hard.
Could it even have been a residual desire to proclaim that the Blessed Sacrament, as objective reality, is always in itself more significant than the liturgical event which gives it birth, and in which that group of people had been called to participate that evening?
It seemed as if the assembly that night were like a group of people invited to a friend’s house for a meal, only to find that their host, after treating himself to the newly prepared food, went to the cupboard to find some leftovers for his guests.
Of course analogies will take us only so far, and yet I came away from that church feeling something was not quite right, that in this small but significant act the spirit of the reforms flowing from Vatican II had somehow been lost. When it came to the moment of sharing the great gift of God, priest and people had withdrawn to their respective domains, and were both impoverished thereby.