This morning I went to Mass at what I would describe as a “moderate reform-of-the-reform” parish — e.g. six candles on the free-standing, versus populum altar, but only a small crucifix that the celebrant could see, so not the full-on “caged celebrant” effect of the so-called “Benedictine” arrangement of the altar. Clearly this is a parish where some thought has been put into the liturgy and how to make it more “traditional” in feel. The question is, have they been thinking about the right things?
Most striking to me, as trivial as it might seem at first, was how the Eucharistic species were handled in the liturgy. On the positive side, communion under both species was offered. But the two chalices for the communion of the assembly were placed at one end of the altar and, once they were filled, seemed to be ignored by the celebrant. I trust he had the intention of consecrating them, but there was nothing in his ritual activity that would give any indication of this; the only chalice that seemed to receive any attention, ritually speaking, was the chalice at the center of the altar, which was clearly the “priest’s chalice,” since he alone received from it. Likewise, the priest consecrated only the priest’s host; the laity received from ciboria taken from the tabernacle during the Agnus Dei.
The net effect was that we had a priest’s host and a priest’s chalice that were the ritual focus of the celebration, and then, ritually an afterthought, the chalices and hosts that the laity received.
I don’t mean to be a back-pew celebrant. But I could not help but be struck by the fact that what was being communicated ritually was that this was the priest’s Mass and the communion of the laity was an addition to that Mass and not an integral part of it. This, of course, was in fact the case before the liturgical reforms following Vatican II. The communion of the laity was a distinct rite that was on occasion incorporated into the Mass (thus the additional Confetior and Domine, non sum dignus), and not an actual part of the rite of Mass itself. The reforms following the Council were quite deliberate in changing this, and for excellent theological reasons. It is our sharing in the one sacrifice of Christ by receiving the gifts that have been offered that is the sign and cause of the unity of the mystical body of Christ. This is, I would say, better signified by ritual acts that underscore the unity of the assembly and the priest — such as all receiving from elements consecrated at that Mass and no artificial distinction being made between what the priest receives and what the assembly receives.
If we are going to put thought into the liturgy (and I think we should) and if we desire a liturgy that is a vehicle that conveys the Church’s tradition (and I think we should), then shouldn’t we be thinking about fundamentals before we turn our thoughts to styles of vestments or altar decorations or other secondary elements? If we want to be traditional, then should we simply content ourselves with trying to look like Fulton Sheen in the book This is the Mass? If we want to be traditional, shouldn’t we rather begin our efforts by attending to that which is at the roots of our tradition, such a Paul’s words, “For we, being many, are one bread, one body, all that partake of one bread”?