Allow me to touch a liturgical third rail: Communion in the hand.
Before I do, look at the July 4th edition of La Croix International. It reports that of the 96 dioceses in the country of France, 58 produced not a single ordination to the Priesthood. Truth be told, this crisis is not restricted to France. It has enveloped all of Europe, some countries suffering even more severe shortages than France.
Europe is not alone. North American ordinations are also in free-fall. One East Coast seminary, which hosts three major metropolitan dioceses, has a seminarian population hovering around 50—that is, 50 seminarians for more than 7.8 million Catholics. Before 1960, when the seminary served only one Archdiocese, it housed three hundred seminarians.
This is a collapse of historic proportions. A cause for concern, don’t you think? Might it have something to do with the precipitous decline of reverence for the Holy Eucharist? To some progressive Catholics, this suggestion may seem somewhat quaint. Then again, to that same set of Catholics (and priests of the “new paradigm”), belief in the Real Presence itself is quaint. Tolerate slippage in the high reverence owed to the Most Blessed Sacrament (how many Catholics even use that expression any longer?), and the Church suffers a decline in the priests whose vocation it is to be its guardian.
Of course, Communion in the hand is an approved practice, but one which is only juridically “tolerated.” No matter how antediluvian this may sound, it is the reality. Moreover, no intelligent Catholic would maintain that Communion in the hand alone caused a decline either in devotion to the Blessed Sacrament or in vocations to the priesthood. On the other hand, no intelligent Catholic would deny that Communion in the hand holds a principal place in the constellation of factors that have led to these declines. Any other conclusion is counterintuitive.
Such analysis may seem slightly eccentric to a large portion of Catholics raised in a world constructed by au courant liturgists. But let us remember it was a world built from scraps extorted from the Holy See. Ancient history, but true history nonetheless. When the liturgical record of our age is accurately documented, Catholics will marvel at how the courtly procedures of Rome were broadsided time after time by fast-moving liturgists. Like the agile English boats wreaking havoc on the hulking Spanish Armada, so the ’60s liturgists ran circles around the stately Roman curia, winning as booty a millennium of rich and sublimely awe-inspiring sacred liturgy.
The issue with Communion in the hand is not a bit of quirky crankiness. The practice arose from the toxic soil of virulent dissent. For some years, youngsters have been instructed that it is another glorious tradition of the ancient Church. This is a plain deception. If not for highly organized pressure groups in the ’60s (which simply initiated the practice in a dramatic act of defiance), its regular practice would still be viewed today as shockingly irregular. By the time the dust settled, fatal concessions had been made. In due course, like termites chewing away at a foundation, the once mighty Catholic edifice of Eucharistic piety began to crack. This was quite predictable since Catholics believe as they act (lex orandi, lex credendi). When actions are altered, beliefs will inevitably change too—no matter how unintentionally. Trying to defend the novel Eucharistic practice by appealing to its present long fixity in the Catholic mind is no defense. Theological argument is not won by invoking stare decisis.
Rome understood this perfectly. In a pointed effort to stamp out false liturgical practices and defend traditional Eucharistic piety, Paul VI promulgated Memoriale Domini in 1969. This document eloquently upheld the ancient practice of Communion on the tongue while reluctantly tolerating the new practice. Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, refused Communion in the hand at all Pontifical Masses. Mere papal preference? Not quite. It is a forceful acknowledgement of the ancient principle: the slightest diminution in any of the reverences to the Blessed Sacrament risks significant diminution of belief.
No wonder the 2000 Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani contains the pregnant clause (#161): “If communion is given only under the form of bread, the priest raises the Eucharistic bread slightly and shows it to each one, saying: ‘The Body of Christ’… and [the faithful] receive the Sacrament as they choose, either on the tongue, or in the hand, where this is allowed” (emphasis added). In the typically spare manner of Roman documents, a notable truth is conveyed. Communion on the tongue remains normative, with Communion in the hand only tolerated, where permitted by law. This detail might be lost in the din of hammering together a liturgical New World, but it should not be lost on those with a deep love for the Body of Christ. But is linking this change in practice to a decline in vocations a slight stretch? Not really.
Holy Church understands that an intimate ontological bond exists between the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood: an eclipse in appreciation for the one inevitably leads to a decline in interest in the other. A priest’s whole raison d’être is the Holy Eucharist. He protects it, as the Bridegroom protects the Bride. All the priest’s vigor streams forth from that august sacrament, and it is that sacrament which fashions his priestly personality. His priestly manhood is perfected in the adoration, care, and affection for that sacrament. Apart from it, the heart of the priest withers and his priestly virility falters. Softness replaces heroism and an epicene compromise substitutes for fiery conviction. Soon the priest no longer seeks the sharp strokes of saintly action but is more at home in the safer and softer secular life. Conceal the majesty of the Holy Eucharist and you reduce the once noble class of priests into a tribe of spiritual pygmies. And soon even that inglorious residue disappears. Could the lesson be more clear? No healthy young man aspires to be small. Greatness alone summons him.
France has much company in its crisis of priests. Almost every diocese in North America faces frightening declines in vocations. To their credit they have attempted nearly every possible solution: new vocation offices, new vocation teams, high school rap sessions, internet advertising, highway billboards, Madison Avenue firms, bishops’ subcommittees, and even ads in Playboy. Nothing seems to have worked. But have they tried everything?
Maybe the solution has been as close as the church around the corner: the Mass and the Holy Eucharist. Look no further than these. However, when you look at the Mass and the Holy Eucharist, be sure you look at them as the Church understands them, not as the liturgists do. Too many well-intentioned priests and bishops have naively embraced the mindset of the Liturgical Establishment and not that of the Roman Church. This results in “sentire cum periti” (thinking with the experts) rather than “sentire cum ecclesiae” (thinking with the Church). Catholics who think with the Church see the liturgy as an end in itself; the Liturgical Nomenclatura sees liturgy as a means to something else. Holy Church instructs us that the liturgy is the act of Christ redeeming mankind in the re-presentation of his atoning sacrifice of Calvary. Man comes to adore and to love so that he can be filled and sanctified. Man kneels at Mass for no other purpose. Endless needs and petitions crowd his mind as he kneels before the Divinity, but all of those are entirely secondary to that act of adoration, that act of loving self-oblation.
For this reason man delights in surrounding the sacrificial act of the Crucified Savior with all manner of riches, splendor, and grandeur. Not any of it for any other reason than to glorify Christ, just as our love at the moment of Transubstantiation is for no one but him. This is the transcendence of love—his love and ours. It is this Love that makes all other loves possible. It was foreshadowed in the Magdalene’s bath of perfume over the Savior’s feet. “To what end?” the Traitor protests, then and now. The Savior defends the Magdalene’s excess—an excess for no reason save for love of the Savior. This is love’s sublimity. This is the liturgy’s pinnacle shrouded by ranks of angels. This is the axis upon which creation turns.
Establishment liturgists operate in a smaller world, almost Lilliputian. To them the liturgy is only a means to another thing: self-realization, community, peace, justice, healing, diversity, dignity, et cetera, et cetera. To the liturgist of a Brave New Liturgical World the liturgy is people-work, so it is their solemn law that a plethora of people be found everywhere in its performance. To paraphrase Hamlet: “Man’s the thing.” Ironically, in this very, very small world of the liturgist there is no room for God, and even less room for men—real men, that is.
Every Catholic should be deeply moved by France’s plight. It is our plight, too. Perhaps it is time to experiment with a different remedy. Explore a new paradigm. Maybe a supernatural problem demands a supernatural solution.
It might seem like strange new thinking. But the “old” thinking doesn’t seem to have worked. C’mon, be daring. Try something new. The only thing you can lose is a crisis.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Holy Communion” painted by Angelo von Courten (1848-1925).