by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
I enjoyed the reflections in Margaret Daly-Denton’s AMEN CORNER piece and I found them to be very helpful. I fully agree with here that every Christian ought to be near the eucharistic table during the celebration. However that is not always practical given the logistics of our current buildings.
This led me to the unusual question as to whether we simply have too many people coming to Mass.
I know this is an absurd question in these days of clergy shortage, but Scripture expresses a preference for one bread and one cup. If we take this seriously we could ask ourselves how many people can receive from one bread and one cup? 50? 100? In the miracles of the loaves Christ divided the people into groups of 50 or 100. If, as many Scripture scholars say, these passages are in fact written by an early Christian community that is reflecting on both the miracle of Our Lord and their own Eucharistic practice. Then we could ask if there was an early Christian practice of multiple Eucharists being celebrated for different smaller assemblies.
I know that there are other factors at play here, such as the lack of availability of bigger places to celebrate, but the early Church in Rome was made up of different communities (or proto-parishes) celebrating in different parishes. Ignatius of Antioch’s ideal of a single Eucharist per diocese gave way to multiple Eucharists presided by presbyters (I do realize that there is a lot of discussion of Eucharistic origins, such as Baldovin’s recent proposal on the origins of the fermentum in Rome coming from non-Eucharist celebrations, instead of multiple Eucharists, but the parish structure did gradually emerge from the practice of the early practice of the early church).
In our brush-struck history of the Eucharist, with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine in the fourth century, we see the adoption of the basilica form of church that made space for big assemblies. Archaeological studies tell us that the internal walls in the basilica separating the area of the clergy from the assembly (such as can be seen today in Rome’s San Clemente Basilica). Nonetheless these were bigger assemblies than could receive Communion from one bread and one cup. At this stage the fact that many Christians no longer received Communion every week made the point rather moot.
I have traced elsewhere the desire of the assembly to be near the altar. But until St. Pius X, the faithful didn’t receive Communion more than once or twice a year. A hundred years ago, with Pius X’s liturgical renewal many assemblies were quite large and modern parish churches often date to this period, whereby the Tridentine ideal of being able to see the altar from the whole church building was the guiding principle. Today we have a different situation, whereby many churches have been renovated after Vatican II, so that the altar is now closer to the assembly, but perhaps the line of sight to the altar from everywhere in the church is not quite as respected as in the original building.
On top of this, we often have churches that are larger than we need and which (other than Christmas and the odd funeral or other particular event) are rarely full. In particular weekday Masses are often held in churches than are less than 10% full. As numbers attending particularly weekday liturgies drop, maybe we should concentrate on providing meaningful worship spaces for the assembly to properly participate around the altar. Then when we have larger numbers at a given celebration, we should think as to what makes most sense logistically for as active a participation as possible given that the biblical preference for a small assembly has been sacrificed for a greater pastoral benefit of a large assembly coming together for a particular event.
St. John Paul II once warned a group of Canadian bishops that it was necessary to fight against an anonymity invading our Eucharistic assemblies, which is a danger when people have been clustered together to form a mega-assembly.
On a practical level, we clearly need to balance the tendency to cluster to limit clergy burn out caused when priest are running around celebrating liturgies in half empty churches. Yes, we have to keep the show on the road; and yes, at times we do need to limit the number of Eucharistic liturgies by clustering assemblies and creating large groups. But we must also avoid the easy temptation of creating an anonymous crowd of people who do not really constitute an assembly of the Christian community. These are not simple decisions and often need an almost Solomonic wisdom on the part of the Church’s leaders.
Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. He is currently a lecturer in Systematic Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. He has studied at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame, and St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctorate in Theology from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.