This past week I attended a “priests retreat” offered by the diocese where I serve as the director of worship. In addition to a focus talk each day by a retreat master, the retreatants also gathered for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Eucharist. At the first of the Eucharistic Liturgies celebrated this week I had a puzzling exchange with one of the clergy.
The Eucharists were formal liturgies with the clergy fully vested for concelebration. The Eucharist took place at a church down the street from the hotel where the retreat was centered. As director of worship, I served the liturgy as master of ceremonies. The clergy sat in the pews, and would come to one of two stations to receive the Body and Blood of Christ at communion, as per the GIRM 242-246. The stations were set up in the assembly area because of limited room in the sanctuary and to ease the movement up the steps of the sanctuary for some of the senior clergy present. The clergy would be ushered to the stations.
During the faction rite, I went to the tabernacle to remove the ciborium because I was not sure whether there were in fact enough hosts consecrated. I placed some reserved hosts in one of the two patens alongside hosts consecrated at the Mass. The puzzling exchange occurred as I was in the process of ushering clergy to one of the stations. One of the more recently minted priests comes running up the aisle to me from the rear of the church to say with alarming seriousness that by mixing the reserved and the consecrated hosts together I had invalided the Mass and prevented priests directed to that one paten from receiving Eucharist.
On the one hand, I was a bit startled by his interruption, on the other hand, I was quite confused as to what he expected me to do next. Stop the liturgy and ask the bishop, who was the presider, to offer the Eucharistic Prayer all over again because the hosts for the priests were now contaminated with the reserved sacrament? In as sotto voce as possible, I told the priest to receive from the chalice if he were bothered by the possibility of receiving an already consecrated host, as the principle of concomitance sustained the present of Christ in both species. I found out later that day that because of what occurred at the altar I was now the target of gossip over whether I knew what I was doing as director of worship.
This incident greatly confused me. The frantic nature of the priest’s intervention made it seem that an irreparable rift had occurred in the celebration of the Eucharist. With whom or concerning what was not clear. What actually had been invalidated? Yes, concelebrating priests are to complete their part in offering the sacrifice by partaking of both species consecrated at that Mass just as if they were celebrating individually. Yet, neither the GIRM or Canon Law speaks specifically to this expectation; nor do they strictly prohibit a concelebrating from receiving from the reserved sacrament should this occur. The only reference to a problem with concelebrating priests receiving from the reserved sacrament is found in Redemptionis Sacramentum 98 which infers that if this were to happen it would be illicit, but not invalid. The only other reference, I found, to a situation involving reserved hosts and concelebrating clergy was a Zenit dispatch from 2004 in answer to a question of the same. The author here quoted the same section from Redemptionis Sacramentum 98, concurring that such reception from the reserved sacrament was illicit, but did not invalidate the Eucharistic action.
Perhaps what this incident reveals above all is another aspect of the creeping clericalism, which continues to accelerate in some areas of priestly life. The legalistic and rubical lens through which this priest viewed the Eucharistic event, so strident as to desire to interrupt the liturgy as if some criminal action had occurred, transforms the Eucharist into an almost magical phenomenon. It also begs the question once again of the over-use of the reserved sacrament for the laity in Eucharistic celebrations. If it is necessary for the ordained to receive communion consecrated at a Eucharistic liturgy in which they participate, then the same must also hold true for all the faithful who participate in the liturgy. To not do so denies the faithful their role in the sacrificial liturgy where, as Eucharistic Prayer I states, “they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them.” Many clerics cringe at the crass, but no less true, use of the word “leftovers” for the reserved sacrament given to the laity at most Masses, and yet is this not what is too often occurring?
The Eucharistic liturgy is a corporate event of a people called by God into relationship with God, edified in this truth through the Eucharistic action. It is also a ritual action enacted by human beings, we ought to remember, who as fallible creatures in the process of perfection may not always achieve the desired ends that we human beings have set. An over-active focus on precision and an all too narrow interpretation of rubrics may only serve to further diminish the power of this action.