Recommended Guidelines Raise Troubling Questions (updated)

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.

Conclusion

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.

Update

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!

 

 

25 comments

  1. Interesting, and unsettling. Your critique is spot-on. The idea of distributing Communion after Mass is ridiculous. One quibble: I think the vast majority of those present at the opening of the Council, mostly bishops and priests, (including Pope John) had already celebrated Mass (if “sacerdotes”, and in private) and in all cases received communion. Which is even more topsy-turvy. Mind you by the time that ceremony was over they probably wanted their lunch more than anything else.

    As to the issue of possible contamination of hosts (the very expression makes me shudder), perhaps a less bad idea would be to place small hosts in a ciborium on the corporal near the chalice and just leave the cover on. If Our Lord’s risen body could get through the doors of the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit can get through the lid, whereas viruses can’t!

  2. Rita, I certainly am grateful and agree with your commentary here. Regarding, “The meal aspect of Eucharist not an add-on; it’s hard wired into the service.” It seems clear that clergy who promote Communion after Mass do not agree with this. They see the Mass as a duty of their office. Not a meal. Not even worship. But a procedure outside of the sphere of the supernatural. As long as they have the rank and the right, who needs anything or anyone else?

  3. It is disappointing that the Dominicans seem to be largely responsible for this recommendation, but not surprising.

  4. I totally agree with Rita’s article. This is just another step back to the Pre-Vatican way of not adhering to the Council Documents.
    Thank you Rita, your hard work over these years has proven the great role that the lay woman and men who work tirelessly to implement the need to keep the vision of the Council alive in the Spirit today and in the future. Keep the flame Alive!

  5. Have we done any of these things in recent years during other serious health pandemics, sars, etc. This is giving in to utter hysteria. If we truly believe what what we do is the sharing of the very body and blood of Christ, will not God guide us and protect us in our ministrations??
    Yes, stop the comon Chalice, sign of peace, even laity distributing Communion. The priest and Deacon taking great care not to come into physical contact.

  6. re: breathing on the other hosts…..the religious communities in some European dioceses have adopted the following method for the hosts of the priest-celebrant and the other (religious) members of the community: the celebrant’s host in placed in a kind of paten which fits into the top of the ciborium/bowl paten in which the other hosts are placed. Visually, therefore , it appears the same, and comes from the same container but in reality the other hosts are covered/sealed until Holy Communion. Of course, these communities are not huge either.

  7. Interesting. The author notes that distribution of communion to the faithful during Mass has become “standard practice” – but so have many practices that are somewhere on the spectrum from historical novelty – liturgical abuse. She also notes that “The reform of the liturgy corrected this anomalous situation, which diverged from the roots and normative vision of liturgy. ” The normative vision simply means what some consider a good idea. My question is just how anomalous was this situation? When did reception during Mass by the celebrant only begin? How long was it the standard practice?

  8. Three thoughts.
    1. Hopefully, a work in progress. Needs more consideration. Input from experts in various fields.
    2. Communion on the tongue should still be avoided. Since the virus is transferred by liquid/aerosols from mouth or nose it is too risky for one’s fingers to get that close to someone’s mouth. In S Korea they are forbidden to say Amen. (Like in the EF, if memory serves me)
    3. If they move distribution to after Mass some people will time it to arrive after Mass. Every year we get phone calls asking when during the Mass will ashes be distributed. Similar thinking. IMHO

  9. I am old enough to remember pre-Vatican II practices — even having been an altar boy toward the end of that period — but not so old not to remember them accurately!

    In those days in our Boston parish, communion at both Sunday and daily Mass was distributed not after Mass but during Mass: after the sermon on Sunday, almost immediately upon the beginning of Mass for the shorter weekday Masses. Pope John the Great put a stop to that practice just before my service at the altar began.

    1. Was Holy Communion distributed by one or more other priests while the celebrant continued with Mass?

      1. Remember the practice clearly. Around the time of the Lord’s Prayer, priests emerged from the sacristy in cassock, surplice, and stole. While the celebrant continued praying the Mass, they went to a tabernacle on one of the side altars, and took ciboria and began to distribute Communion at the altar rail. They stopped momentarily while the bells were rung as the celebrant prayed “Domine, non sum dignis…..” After receiving communion he would turn to see if there was any need for him to assist with administering communion. If not he proceeded with finishing Mass. Had there been a need for his help, he would reach into his tabernacle for a ciborium since had only consecrated one host for himself.

  10. It’s also unfortunate that discussion of singing is found only in the “Choirs are discouraged” section.

    Going by the logic given, it sounds like they’d recommend that all Masses should be spoken. The fact that they don’t say that, though, or otherwise touch on singing by the people or the priest is all too consistent with the notion that singing at Mass per se be “the choir’s job”, without which all is spoken as a matter of course.

    1. Rita well said!. My fear during this time is that the voices screaming “it was better before” are the ones USCCB seems poised to listen to at this time. Cardinal Dolan’s dance with the devil has not helped any either. We are not here to make anyone’s opinion the new practice. We are here to adhere to the world of God for the people of God. Jesus left us to make the church work for His people, so that they can find their way to serve the Father, not for expedience or even convenience. It makes no sense to distribute communion other than where in the Supper of the Lord, Jesus distributed communion.

      1. I don’t pay attention to Cardinal Dolan and his ramblings. The music and liturgy in St Patrick’s in NYC is some of the worst in the country compared to places like Christ Cathedral in LA, the National Shrine in Washington, and Sacred Heart Basilica in Newark.

    2. I don’t think music is being discouraged. I can understand large choirs being discouraged because of the force of air and potential germs bring spewed into the building. One or two Cantors(which is what we are using in my parish for live stream masses) or even a quartet of voices – socially distanced – I’m sure is not a problem. Just remember – priests and bishops and cardinals who have little regard for music in the liturgy will probably discourage it. Those who value music will allow it – like my parish.

  11. Seems to me that a lot of this thinking here is a scrupulosity that mirrors other schools of thinking whose names shall go unmentioned. People need to take a deep breath here. This is ALL about protecting people’s well-being…which is categorically more important that ritual purity. Do I really need to even say that? Seems to me that Communion at the end of Mass is also meant to minimize the chances for distancing to break down and so that folks could leave one-by-one and not bunch up “socializing” which is the major manner of exit where I live anyhow. Also, the separate vessel and corporal is to preclude the a potentially infected celebrant from projecting droplets on the hosts to be distributed to the congregation and therefore avoid Mass being a “super-spreader” party. This could also easily be addressed by using a separate ciborium with a cover on the SAME corporal as the celebrant’s paten. We can do all of this without undue trepidation about reviving Ghosts of Christmases past.

  12. I was the reader at our parish’s live streamed Mass last week; there was the priest, me, and the person running the camera. I was given communion after Mass, which I understood as part of the whole live-streaming timing. But I thought it very odd that we were led into the Lord’s Prayer and the “Lord, I am not worthy…” since we literally had just done all that 3 or 4 minutes before, in the same place. I thought this was some weirdness of our priest; didn’t realize it was the recommendation. I must say, from my perspective it was odd and made no sense. It’s like our prayers before didn’t count?

  13. Thank you, RP and Jack, for these vivid recollections! I actually knew about this, and should have mentioned that Communion was given at various times –before and during, as well as after the Mass. (Dom Bernard Botte has a hilarious instance in his memoir, of a woman who was told by her spiritual director to receive Communion first, then offer Mass as a thanksgiving! Another liturgical pioneer, JD Crighton, described his First Communion which was given outside of Mass.) I’ve emended the post.

    The point I was concerned to make, however, is the one that you’ve illustrated, namely, that giving out Communion in the Communion Rite as the normal and consistent practice was an achievement of the reform. It contributes to the coherence of the Eucharist as we now know it — and perhaps take for granted. Thank you Terri for sharing your recent experience. It illustrates perfectly how we take this coherence for granted, and regard departures from it with puzzlement. As you say, “it was odd and made no sense.”

    Happily, the FDLC Guidelines which were offered after these, include a strong statement of support for what I am arguing here: “The Communion Rite is an essential and unmovable element of the Order of Mass.” (p. 10). I’ve included this in the post as well.

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