Catholics of Gen X and Y, and certainly Millennials, will find this hard to believe:
we used to recite the rosary aloud during mass!
This was during the TLV/Traditional Latin Mass back when it was just plain mass.
Unthinkable as it is today—especially during a liturgy so fraught with holy mystery—I know why Sr. Superior decided to implement this policy. It had to do with the likes of me, clanking my way down the aisle with my tuna-reeking lunchbox to ensconce myself in the third-grade pew next to Patty. In my ADD oblivion, I did not hear the Evangelium being read at the altar, as this kindred spirit led me into whispered conversation. More than once I spent recess later on writing “Silence is golden” 100 times.
So the boys on the St. Joseph side led the prayers, and we girls answered. I think we stopped for the Consecration. Except for the kids who lived a block or so from church, we didn’t receive communion because of the need to have fasted from midnight, so the rosary could continue right on to the end of mass. At least we were focused on the Lord, in an indirect way.
Fast forward to the present. Fewer people pray the rosary (silently) during mass, although the practice was slow dying out after Vatican II; but the conversation around Eucharistic Revival often makes me wonder if the Eucharistic Mystery some are focused on is really the Eucharistic liturgy itself, and not rather the sacred host exposed in the monstrance during adoration. Is it a dynamic event: God the Creator showing up on our altar in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, breaking the bounds of time and space? Or is it a time of quiet meditation before Jesus ongoing presence in the Monstrance or tabernacle?
The point here is not to compare these two aspects of the Eucharist, but to set them in order: Exposition and prayer before the tabernacle derive from the Eucharistic Celebration. We have the opportunity for adoration because we first had the Eucharistic liturgy, the Source.
When I was living in a small Colorado town, I wrote a series of articles for the local newspaper on the history of the various churches in town. The question I was asking was: how did your faith lead your ancestors to come here to establish this church? To do that, I looked at the particular charism of their church: the key aspect of the Gospel that had motivated them as a denomination, and how it had influenced them in coming to this town. In some cases, early church leaders had fought their way across snowy mountain trails to bring their faith to our town. Early Catholic priests had spent heroic lives traveling from one tiny mining town to another to bring the sacraments to people in those remote places.
When interviewing the Lutheran minister, I was particularly curious to hear his understanding of the Eucharist, based on the theology of Consubstantiation, which I’d never fully understood.
“We believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist,” he said, “body and blood, soul and divinity.”
“That’s the same as what we believe!” I said, happy to find a common ground.
“No, it’s not what you believe.”
Confused, I asked him to repeat his explanation, which sounded the same as ours.
After several repetitions, I finally discovered the key difference: Catholics believe that once the bread and wine have become the Body and Blood of Christ, they do not revert to their previous state until the actual substance has changed form. For Lutherans, the consubstantial Body and Blood are only present while the congregation—the Body of Christ assembled—is there.
This is why Catholics can keep the Body of Christ present in the tabernacle for adoration outside mass. We can also take communion to the sick and dying.
Going back to the pre-Vatican II mass, there was a tendency to place more value on the consecrated host than on the living presence of Jesus in the liturgy. Why else would be people have found it perfectly acceptable to:
· Arrive late to mass, as long as you got there for the Offertory?
· Pray the rosary or other devotions during mass?
· Leave mass early?
· Hold confessions during the first half of the mass?
· Have no active involvement in the liturgy?
Observing these contradictions in our Eucharistic practice, liturgical thinkers in the 19th and 20th Centuries began to ask whether these practices were in the spirit of the liturgies of the early Church; and, if not, where we had gotten off course. What were we missing?
In the liturgy as in so many areas, our responses to the Protestant Reformation were to dig in our heels, reasserting our ways and avoiding everything that smacked of Protestantism, forgetting that we were not black and white opposites. We had neglected to recognize what the Lutherans remembered: that Christ is also present in the gathered assembly, as he himself promised he would be. St. Paul had called the Church the Body of Christ, after all. We had neglected the presence of Christ in his Word, which was being obscured for many by being read in a language few knew.
The Eucharistic Liturgy was so much richer and more wonderful than any of us had understood. Our sacramentals—the symbolic objects used to help us recognize the divine mysteries—could be even richer than before. Yes, we’d had the regular statues and the stations, and little holy water fonts. The lessons of Vatican II led to an expansion of these: adding a table altar apart from the tabernacle; creating a visual and tactile link between the holy water and baptism; bringing back the Paschal Candle, a reminder of Christ, Light of the World.
In some churches the sacramentals had so emphasized Our Lady and the saints that Jesus no longer appeared as focal point. Some pastors went overboard in shifting the focus, stripping churches of their beautiful statues and altar pieces. But in many cases, let’s admit it, the artwork was a bit tacky: cheap stations, plaster statues. Although many of us had grown up with these and were happy enough, the thinking was to make our sacramentals beautiful and artful in order to help us picture the splendor of our invisible mysteries. The image of Mary should show how much we venerate her, and the same for other church art. Over time I think we have steadied that overcorrect.
When in doubt it is easy to get mired in details—this practice or that ; this arrangement of the church or that. Where should the tabernacle be? How should I express my reverence? Is hand-holding okay? When we get stuck in those details, we can lose sight of why we are at mass to start with? Is it to show how correct we are? Is it to make sure we are in God’s good graces? Or is it to enjoy this paramount encounter with Jesus Christ, who dismissed the Pharisees’’ attempts to micromanage the spiritual life.
If it’s the encounter we are looking for, ask God to help you find it. Try to remember that you can’t orchestrate that meeting by arranging the furniture and controlling the people; Christ is the director here, and he will surprise you with his presence, as God did Elijah with the very small voice. We have only to be there.
Copyright 2023-Frances Rossi