This morning, celebrating Corpus Christi, we used as our principal chalice the ordination chalice of a recently deceased parishioner, who has been ordained to the priesthood just before the Second Vatican Council. It is an attractive chalice, in a late-50s/early 60s sort of way. The stem is fairly short and the bowl is wide and shallow. Administering communion, I found it somewhat awkward, since the shallowness of the cup kept me worried that the precious blood would slosh over the side as I handed it to the communicants. The short stem made passing it back and forth somewhat awkward as well.

We also used a late 19th century chalice given by the family who donated most of the money to build the church 132 years ago. It has a longer stem, with a deeper cup of fairly small diameter. Having used that chalice in the past, I found that, despite being almost the exact opposite of the other chalice in terms of proportions of stem and cup, it was equally difficult to use for communion, since the small, deep cup required the communicant to tilt the chalice up very high in order to receive.

chalices

Ordinarily when I am administering the cup I use the ordination chalice of our pastor, who was ordained in the mid-70s. This has a cup that is both wide and deep and is very easy to administer communion from.

All of this got me to thinking about the post-Conciliar liturgical reforms and how they have changed our liturgies in countless small ways. It struck me that the reason why some chalices, whether from the late 19th century or mid-20th century, are so difficult to use for communion of the assembly is that they were never meant to be used for that purpose, because the assembly never received from the cup. Given their original function of providing a receptacle for the consecration of the wine and a visual focus of devotion for the people during the elevation, they were quite well designed. But now that they also were to be used for giving communion, they were, if not unusable, at least somewhat awkward, an awkwardness that is not present when we use our usual chalices, which are clearly designed with the communion of the people in mind.

This awkwardness is probably worth the trouble, at least some of the time. On the feast of Corpus Christi—our “feast of title”—it seemed only fitting to use a historic chalice that had been used in the parish for over a century, as well as the chalice of a beloved parishioner whose absence is still keenly felt. But there is no denying the awkwardness, and the awareness it brings of how much our liturgy has changed in only a few decades. And I can’t say that I would be enthusiastic about using either of these chalices every Sunday, much less of obtaining newly-made chalices in either style.

What can be said of old chalices might be said of other elements of our liturgical patrimony. Much beautiful liturgical music of the past now fits somewhat awkwardly with the reformed liturgy: a lengthy choral Sanctus with a Benedictus split off from it as a second “movement” worked well when the canon was spoken silently under the music, but now introduces a laong and awkward pause in the liturgical action. Finely wrought vestments that were meant to be seen from the back while the priest stood at the altar were a useful point of focus when the priests back was what most people saw during most of the liturgy, but are less effective when the priest faces the assembly across the altar, as is typical in the post-Conciliar liturgy.

I do not think that any of this means that such chalices should be melted down, or that such music should be banished to the concert hall, or that such vestments should be thrown into a bonfire (as was rumored to have happened in my parish during the 1970s). But I do think that we need to reflect on how the reformed liturgy has its own logic and requirements and how we cannot cram it into a different logic simply for the sake of preserving our liturgical/artistic patrimony. At the same time, unlike some in both the “progressive” and “traditionalist” liturgical camps, I think the logic of the reformed liturgy is not entirely divorced from earlier liturgical forms, and that with some prudence and imagination we can find ways to preserve our patrimony for future generations. Thinking about how we use the liturgical “accessories” that the past has bequeathed to us can and should be the occasion for reflecting on our reformed liturgy and its relationship to all that has come before it.

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