One Flock, Walking Together

In his fine book Singular Vessel of Devotion: The Sacramental Body at Prayer, Paul Janowiak offers comments on liturgical processions. Quoting Antonio Donghi, he writes:

The liturgical celebration involves processional gestures, for the procession of the people of God and the ministers parallels our continuous walk toward the eternal pastures of the kingdom.  In this gesture, we proclaim that we have here no fixed home, that we do not depend on any stability, since we know that life in all its meaning and relationships moves ever forward, that life is always in motion.*

Janowiak provides examples of processions: with palms on Palm Sunday, bringing the Blessed Sacrament to an altar of repose on Holy Thursday evening, entering the church building behind the Paschal Candle at the start of the Easter Vigil, and coming forward for communion at that Vigil and indeed every Mass. He then observes, “Processing in a contemporary Western culture with its sense of individuality is not easy.”**

In 1935, long before the appearance of Janowiak’s book, Virgil Michel lamented individualism in liturgical life:

When we receive Communion we may be inclined to think of it as Christ coming into our hearts and becoming our own exclusive possession, and we think with gratitude of the infinite Christ confining Himself within the limits of our small heart. When twenty persons receive Communion at Mass and go back to their separate pews, this would almost imply that there were now twenty Christs among the pews.***

Michel immediately adds: “We know, of course, that this is not the Catholic doctrine. When twenty or more individuals receive Communion they have all been intimately united to one and the same sacramental Christ.”

Benedict XVI makes a similar point in his Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est:

Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become “one body,” completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself.***

In light of these reflections, I wonder. When I join a communion procession, do I engage in this action as though I were a customer in line at a supermarket or an amusement park? Is it simply a matter of waiting for my turn behind people who are so inconveniently ahead of me? Do I take seriously the idea that the pilgrim church is a pilgrim church (see Eucharistic Prayer III) and not a mere aggregate of individual pilgrims?

Janowiak turns to an address given by Pope Francis in 2013:

I think this is truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history together with their Lord who walks among us! We are not alone, we do not walk alone. We are part of the one flock of Christ that walks together.*****

Would that I could keep Francis’s words in mind when I am processing. The opening words of Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs I also bear mentioning:

You are indeed Holy and to be glorified, O God,
who love the human race
and who always walk with us on the journey of life.

* Antonio Donghi, Words and Gestures in the Liturgy [Ital. ed., Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1991] (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009) 52 quoted in Paul Janowiak, Singular Vessel of Devotion: The Sacramental Body at Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 2021), 65.

** Paul Janowiak, Singular Vessel of Devotion, 66.

*** Virgil Michel, “The Liturgy: The Basis of Social Regeneration,” Orate Fratres 9 (1935): 536-45 at 542

**** Deus Caritas Est 14, emphasis added.

***** Address of Pope Francis, Cathedral of San Rufino, Assisi, Friday, 4 October 2013 quoted in Janowiak, Singular Vessel of Devotion, 67.


    1. Somewhat related is this rubric which I came across recently in a worship aid: “In the Diocese of (fill in the blank) the assembly remains STANDING for the whole Rite of Communion as a sign of unity until after all have received communion.”

      A brief anecdote that is also somewhat related. This summer I went to a Sunday Eucharist in a basement parish hall because it was air-conditioned, whereas the regular church building was not. We had to stand—there were no kneelers—for the entire Eucharistic Prayer. What a novelty. Presider and congregation, standing together as one body, united in prayer and praise. Even more than the temperature, how good and how pleasant it was. (cf. Psalm 133)

      1. Historically, there were no pews, and kneeling was only done during the words of consecration.

  1. I remember a visit to St Meinrad some decades ago with liturgies of the Word and Eucharist in different places in the main church. Procession to the altar after the intercessions, then a procession back to the seats after receiving the Eucharist. Things like that happen very, very rarely these days.

  2. A wise old teacher told me, “When you are preparing to come to Communion, stand and look at the faces of those who are processing to the Lord’s table. Pray for them as for yourself. We are a communion proceeding to Communion. After receiving the Lord in this sacrament, continue standing until all have received. This is a family meal, not a personal brown bag lunch. It’s a double blessing if all the while we are singing as one. The Church is never closer to the Lord than at this moment.”

    1. Yes, and yes. To those who desire a private, personal moment with the Lord, my shorthand reply is “It’s not Me and Jesus but We and Jesus.”

  3. Even some notable liturgists, with the best of intentions of course, occasionally devise rubrics for the people that are ill advised. Requiring the assembly to remain standing throughout the distribution of communion can be a sign of unity. Encouraging worshipers to engage in the song throughout the communion procession while kneeling or sitting upon their return to the pews is another. There are many people who are not able to stand for long periods of time and parents who need to attend to little children (which is more easily accomplished while kneeling or sitting). If there were no singable communion song and people just returned to their pews to have an intimate moment with The Lord could make it more difficult for them to experience unity with their fellow communicants.

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