Pope Francis spoke on the reception of Communion at his ongoing Wednesday catechetical series on the parts of the Mass today. And while various headlines are already trumpeting that the pope approves Communion in the hand, this was but a small point in today’s rich and profound reflection on Holy Communion.
Throughout this catechetical series on the Mass Francis’s approach has been calm and irenic, and firmly grounded in the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. His focus is not on this or that question of the so-called “liturgy wars,” but on the spiritual depth of the reformed liturgy. His main concern seems to be to unite the Catholic Church around the liturgy by drawing out its riches for everyone to behold. By putting the focus on how participation in the liturgy transforms us, the pope is subtly moving our gaze away from secondary issues.
But to the point that grabs headlines: the pope simply said that the faithful receive Communion “standing with devotion or kneeling, as established by the Episcopal Conference,” and that they receive “in the mouth or, where permitted, in the hand, as preferred.” (The U.S. bishops have determined that standing is the posture for receiving Communion, though those who kneel are not to be refused Communion.) The only hint of making a statement might be in the pope’s phrase “standing with devotion,” which gently reinforces that the position of standing is not suspect for being less pious, but is also to be considered a devotional posture.
Be that as it may, the pope took exactly one sentence to deal with the manner of reception. No new emphasis, no change in practice or liturgical law, no critique of current custom, no accusations, no preference for either manner of reception. The implicit message seems to be something like this: “The Church has settled its practice – so everyone respect one another, stop worrying about side issues, and focus on what matters.”
It is clear that what matters to Pope Francis – and this was the overarching point of the liturgical reform – is the transformation of individuals and communities through their attentive and communal participation in the sacramental mysteries. Christ gives himself to us “both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him,” the pope said. [The Vatican website mistakenly has “confirm” as of this writing.] This means “to allow oneself to be changed as we receive,” he said. Sounding the theme again, Francis said, “Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist.” And yet again he stated “You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!”
The pope reiterated the Church’s teaching that “the sign of the Eucharistic banquet is expressed with greater fullness if Holy Communion is made in the two forms, even though Catholic doctrine teaches that one whole Christ is received in one form.” (Reception in both forms, which is the more traditional practice, was again made possible by the liturgical reform.) And while the pope reaffirmed the current discipline that the priest or deacon is the “ordinary minister of the distribution,” in practice it almost always requires “extraordinary” lay eucharistic ministers if the Church’s wish for distribution under both forms is to be fulfilled.
This statement from the pope is also significant: “The Church strongly desires that the faithful also receive the Body of the Lord with consecrated hosts in the same Mass.” The practice of distributing Communion at Mass from the tabernacle with hosts consecrated at another Mass remains all too common – though popes and councils and synods have repeatedly spoken out against this practice down the centuries.
Pope Francis’s manner of affirming the Real Presence is also telling. He simply affirms it (as I would hope every Catholic does!) and then moves on to the larger spiritual issue of transformation of individuals and communities for the sake of the Church’s mission in the world. In this, he is a good Thomist. Thomas Aquinas, the father of the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, taught that the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharistic species is a means, not an end in itself, and it is meant for the larger end of the mystical union of the church.
By simply affirming the Real Presence without dwelling on it, Pope Francis seems to be guiding Catholics away from an unhelpful distortion of emphasis that set in in the late Middle Ages and became enshrined in Catholic liturgy and piety since the Council of Trent. In this (mis)understanding, Mass becomes above all a means to get on the altar a consecrated Host, which is venerated and adored rather like a physical relic, at the expense of other aspects of the Blessed Eucharist. Unfortunately, all this was tied to very infrequent lay reception of Communion, loss of Communion under both forms, and loss of a sense that the entire community participates in (and understands!) the liturgy.
In placing the emphasis where he does, Francis is also following the logic of the reformed liturgy, which quite consistently pruned away from the Tridentine liturgy later medieval developments and returned to a form more like the practice of the Church’s first five or six centuries. The Church has made it rather clear, in the way the liturgy was reformed after Vatican II, that the Church does not hold the late medieval developments to have been entirely for the good.
And while a blog post such as this attempts to draw out the full significance of what the pope is implicitly and explicitly saying, it bears emphasizing that the pope simply puts forth his positive vision. He does not critique other understandings or signal judgment of those who think differently. He simply leads by expounding the meaning of the Church’s liturgy.
Pope Francis has given us much to ponder: Christ among us, our being nourished by Christ, our transformation, our call to be Eucharistic people. May we heed and follow!
The full text of the pope’s general audience is found here.