As dioceses begin to plan for the restarting of the celebration of liturgy in light of the continuing threat of Covid 19, there is an obvious need for guidance in how to proceed safely. However, the guidelines currently being promoted by the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship raise serious questions—not so much about public health, but about liturgical practice.
In my view, some of the recommendations contained in these guidelines are questionable on liturgical grounds. Here are two examples.
Placing Communion After Mass
One such questionable recommendation concerns the placement of the Communion of the faithful. The guidelines that Archbishop Blair, head of the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship, has offered to bishops of the United States are taken from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC. They state that their preferred option is that Communion should be distributed after Mass, rather than at the Communion Rite.
In evaluating this for parishes, we should recall that one of the highly significant reforms of the liturgy to come out of Vatican II was that Communion was put back into the Communion Rite, rather than being offered at other times. It used to be a common practice that the priest alone received, and Communion was given out at various times before, during, and after Mass, because it was thought that having the congregation receive during the Communion Rite would “interrupt the Mass.” Even at the Mass which convened the Council, with hundreds of priests and bishops present, only the celebrant received. Others received Communion afterwards.
The reform of the liturgy corrected this anomalous situation, which diverged from the roots and normative vision of liturgy. Communion distribution at the Communion Rite has become standard practice. It was not an insignificant change. The shift contributed to a renewed sense of Eucharist as a sacred meal shared by a community of faith, an action in the heart of the liturgy.
Why should the distribution of Communion take place after Mass rather than during the Communion Rite, according to the guidelines? Strangely, this is presented as protecting the integrity of the Mass, because they want the priest not to wear a mask during Mass but to wear a mask during the distribution of Communion. The simple expedient of putting on a mask for the activity of distributing Communion during the Mass seems to the writers of these guidelines more damaging to the “integrity of the Mass” than it would be to take Communion out of the Eucharistic liturgy altogether. Needless to say, I believe the priority here is misplaced. The importance of keeping Communion in the Communion Rite far outweighs the issue of whether or not the priest wears a mask.
There is another reason advanced for this recommendation too. They preferred to offer Communion after Mass so that no one would feel that he or she has to receive. Although it’s fine to be sensitive to people’s feelings, it seems to me that this is a peculiar expectation. Here you have a Eucharistic ritual that culminates in the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ. The meal aspect of Eucharist not an add-on; it’s hard wired into the service. Many Catholics are going to brave coming to Mass during a pandemic precisely out of a desire to receive Communion. So the solution is that you put Communion outside of Mass so that they will not feel they have to receive? These people are adults. They’re not on the hook. If they don’t want to receive, they can simply stay in their places at Communion time.
The inappropriateness of putting Communion after Mass is compounded when, according to the guidelines, the priest who is giving out Communion after Mass is instructed to preface it by saying “Behold the Lamb of God” as if we are following the norms of Reception of Communion Outside of Mass. Frankly, it’s a misuse of that ritual. What you are doing is following Mass with a brief Communion service. But the people have just been to Mass. They are not homebound; they are not in a hospital. They are in church for the celebration of Eucharist. We should not be adding a Communion service afterwards. It makes no sense.
Perhaps the question is complicated by other factors: The guidelines forbid giving or receiving Communion while wearing gloves. They require hand sanitizing by the minister and by each communicant. Communion on the tongue is permitted, according to these guidelines (a disputed point) and the priest is advised to sanitize his hands if he “senses that his fingers have made contact with a person’s hands or mouth.” Perhaps the people who wrote the guidelines felt that all this sanitizing would take an inordinate amount of time. Yet the plan is to have only 10 people attend Mass initially, and later only 50. It hardly seems likely that Communion for 10 people, even if interlaced with hand washing, would prolong the Mass excessively.
Liturgically, the bottom line is this: Relocating the Communion of the faithful to a time after Mass, for those who have actually attended that Mass, is a serious distortion of the shape of the liturgy. This should never be recommended, in my view.
The case is quite separate from taking Communion to the sick and dying: We are talking about Sunday Mass in our churches here. If you are going to invite people back into church for the Liturgy, we should keep the integrity of the rite intact and not split it up into Mass followed by a mini Communion service.
Spatially Separating the Priest’s Host from the Hosts Consecrated for the Faithful
These guidelines also recommend putting the hosts of the faithful on a separate corporal on the side of the altar, and only having the priest’s host in front of him at the consecration.
Now, this may be good epidemiology, but liturgically it seems to me not only inappropriate but even somewhat scandalous because this arrangement visually suggests that there are two quite separate sacrifices on the altar, the priest’s and everyone else’s.
A lot of doctors were on the committee that wrote the guidelines for the Dominican House of Studies. I respect their expertise. But if it is dangerous for the priest to breathe in proximity to the hosts for the people, then perhaps he shouldn’t be celebrating the Eucharist with a congregation in the first place. One obvious way out of this conundrum is for the priest to wear a mask, but the guidelines have forbidden the priest to wear a mask, as mentioned above.
Liturgically, here’s the bottom line: The Eucharist is supposed to be a sign of unity. The visual symbolism created by placing the priest’s Communion bread in one place and the people’s Communion breads someplace else, separate and apart—on its own corporal, no less—undermines this message in a not-insignificant way. It may be licit, but it’s a terrible idea.
Let me say, for the record, that I do not believe that anyone is proposing such practices out of anything but good intentions. I think that faced with certain obstacles and problems, people are trying to find their way forward around Communion and in some ways they are scrambling. Unfortunately, in the attempt to “do the right thing” liturgical values and priorities are not truly being respected even though that is their stated intention. I actually do not blame the Dominican House of Studies for what I see as the problematic recommendations here; they have candidly said they have a committee and the business of writing guidelines is a work in progress. As far as I know, they are not proposing their guidelines as a template for the nation. But I think it is unfortunate that the chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship should disseminate these suggestions as recommendations to all the bishops, given the very real and serious questions that some of these items raise about how best to celebrate the liturgy.
I hope that our bishops will not simply take these guidelines and apply them uncritically. They need to consider the shape of the liturgy, and ask how certain practices now under consideration will either enhance or undermine a wholesome Eucharistic vision going forward.
The FDLC Guidelines, published in May (after the ones from the Dominican House of Studies were sent out by Archbishop Blair) support Communion within the Communion Rite. On page 10 these guidelines state that “The Communion Rite is an essential and unmovable element of the Order of Mass (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, nos. 22.3, 50, 55, 56).” Thank you, FDLC!