Friday, March 09, 2007

"Making it Real" - Part II: The Sacrament of the Altar

I freely admit it: so much water has passed under the bridge now that much about the old liturgy would strike most Catholics today as belonging to an alien world, quixotically fastidious, excessively fussy, formal and hedged about with prescriptions, proscriptions, and taboos to the point of looking like a superstitious relic. Regarded from the point of view of most contemporary Catholics, at ease in their casual suburban AmChurch parishes where even genuflecting is sometimes an afterthought (assuming the Blessed Sacrament is still present), how could it appear otherwise?

In his book, The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), in an appendix entitled "'This Is My Body': On Veneration of the Sacrament of the Altar in the Catholic Church," the award-winning German author and film-maker, Martin Mosebach, describes his experience as a diminutive altar boy under the aegis of the old Mass.
I had already observed, from a distance, that the priest, after lifting up the Host, kept his thumb and forefinger together while praying. The "master of ceremonies" turned the pages of the Missal so that the priest did not have to separate these two fingers.

The outer end of the key to the tabernacle was wide and flat, so that the priest could hold the key between forefinger and middle finger when opening the little golden chest to remove the ciborium containing the Hosts for the congregation. The chalice's nodus also enabled him to hold the chalice without parting his thumb and forefinger at the ritual elevations and when receiving Communion himself. The old sacristan told me: "the priest must not touch anything else with his fingers that have touched the sacred Host until he has washed these fingers with the water and wine over the chalice after giving Communion and drunk this mixture of water and wine that contains particles from the Host." ...

Similar attention was given to the distribution of Communion. People knelt at rails that separated the sanctuary from the nave and were covered with a white cloth. They folded their hands under the cloth; if a Host were to fall during the distribution, it would fall onto this cloth. In addition, the priest giving Communion was accompanied by a server carrying a small gold plate, the "paten," held under the chin of each communicant. The priest would carefully examine this paten for particles when rinsing the chalice and washing his fingers after the Communion.

I learned that everyone wishing to receive Communion had to prepare himself for it. So that the Lord's Body should be clearly distinct from "common food," as the Apostle Paul says, it was to be received on an empty stomach.... That custom has entered into many languages: in English "breakfast" and French "déjeuner," the word actually means "breaking the fast" and refers to the end of the eucharistic fast, that is, after Mass....
As I said, the Sacrament was hedged about with many taboos in the old days. In fact, until the Vatican decision of 1994 permitting female altar servers, no women were canonically permitted in the sanctuary, even as lectors, even though this prohibition was widely disregarded after Vatican II. (The 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 813, #2 stated: “A woman may not be a minister of the Mass, except when no male is available and for a just cause, and under the condition that she make the responses from a distance, not under any circumstances approaching the altar.”) That was liturgical law until just 13 years ago.

Of course, all this strikes most people today as patently absurd -- sort of like the proverbial 'blue laws' prohibiting commerce on Sunday as a day of worship or rest. Such notions simply do not compute. Hence: beyond the shameful repression of women and patriarchal chauvinism of arbitrarily keeping women out of the sanctuary, if the Sacrament of the Altar is such a good thing, why not liberate it, like a bird from a cage? Why not make it accessible to everyone? (Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses again!)

And so, in tandem with the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the taboos and hedges and walls and altar rails have come down in our churches. Tabernacles have been moved out of Sanctuaries, Altars have been pushed out into the nave (if churches still have 'naves'), people receive Communion standing at the head of a moving line, and receive the Host in their hands (although both Paul VI and John Paul II openly opposed the practice before giving in to widespread pressure) -- and there are often so many women helping the priest at the Altar-Table after the Consecration that one sometimes can't help thinking he looks a little lost and out-of-place up there. Clearly, the old taboos are gone, or nearly so.

One particularly instructive example of this trend comes from the Life Teen Masses before the authorities reigned in their excesses, at least some places. Life Teen Masses were once notorious for gathering gaggles of teenagers right up around the Altar. There they would not kneel, but stand right through the Consecration, sometimes chewing gum (although the teens to the left look relatively subdued), watching the priest as he said Mass. The idea seemed to be similar: If the Mass is a good thing, why not liberate it, like a bird from a cage? Why not bring the kids right up to the "Altar-Table," where they can see everything going on up close? Perhaps it was assumed that this would heighten the intensity of their Eucharistic experience and "active participation."

The effect, however, was almost always the very opposite. Instead of intensifying personal experience, it drained it of any sense of transcendence. Instead of elevating "active participation," it led to boredom and indifference.

What happened?

Please do not be offended, but I want to draw an analogy with another movement of cultural liberation that was concurrently underway alongside the liturgical reforms of the 1960s: the sexual revolution. The thinking was very similar in certain respects, as some of you may recall. If human sexuality is so good, then why hedge it about with so many repressive Victorian taboos? Why not liberate it, like a bird from a cage? In contrast to our ancestors and religious teachers, like St. Paul, who saw something profoundly metaphysical in the coupling act that ought to be confined to the bonds of matrimony, the sentiment of the sixties was that sex needed to be demystified, demythologized, and enjoyed for what it is: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

Furthermore, in the process of increasing exposure to more and more sexual information and imagery, a process of desensitization occurred. If any of you have seen the film Kinsey, you may recall what a sensation he caused both in his classrooms and in the public when he began lecturing on the intimate sexual habits of Americans. People used to blush. Sex education classes have done much the same in our schools. Further, if you track the use of nudity and sex appeal in advertising, you can easily see the progressive desensitization that has occurred over the last decades. I don't imagine Hugh Hefner in the 1960s would have been permitted to have as a Playboy centerfold some of the Dillard department store lingerie ads hanging in shopping malls these days. What you find at the end of this trajectory is, of course, hardcore pornography. But when everything is exposed and all one is left with is the impersonal plumbing of human genitalia, a problem occurs. Something is lost: the Real Presence of the Person. This is why even those trapped by the vice of pornography find it ultimately so unsatisfying and boring. (Try reading the Marquis de Sade's 1200 page Juliette. If you don't fall asleep from boredom in ten or twenty pages, you're a sick puppy indeed.)

It was precisely to protect the Real Presence of the Person that sex was hedged about with all those traditional taboos of courtship, ritual, decorum, and bonds of matrimony to begin with. Persons were never to be treated as mere things, to be 'used' as 'means' to satisfy our own pleasure, but always to be respected as ends-in-themselves. The taboos were a sign that we cared about the Real Presence of the other Person on the altar of sexual union. The dropping of the taboos was a sign that we no longer cared about the depth dimension of sex because we no longer cared about the Presence of the interior and irreducible selfhood of the other Person in the sexual encounter. I remember a film-maker in Switzerland telling me he realized he needed help when he reached the point where he had a different girl nearly every night and was telling her, "Please, don't talk to me. I don't even want to know your name."

Now, how does this translate into our consideration of liturgy? Martin Mosebach, describing his experience assisting at the Altar as a boy, writes:
I always found it embarrassing to see the Host at such close quarters, so vulnerable, as if it were lying naked on the white cloth. It was not something for my eyes, a layman's eyes, to behold. There was something secret going on between the priest and the Host. It was a real relationship: there was a kind of conversation between the Host and priest that was hidden from the eyes of the congregation by the priest's body. I, however, as an altar server, was aware and had to be aware of it, like a nurse who unexpectedly finds herself in the position of having to undress a respected personage. The gentle cracking sound of the Host made when it broke seemed not for my ears, either: it was an intimacy to which I was not entitled.
If the Host is nothing more than a wafer, of course, then such words are no more than the pathological scrupulosities of a superstitious and ignorant little boy. There is no mystery here, but only a wafer. Nothing to inspire fear in a man. Certainly not of the kind Mosebach expresses when he says that even in those days when religion had vanished from his mind, he would never have dared to touch a consecrated Host or chalice, or listened to observations on art history in front of the Tabernacle.

On the other hand, if the Host is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, then nothing is more appropriate than the attitude displayed here by Mosebach. How was this attitude instilled? How was Mosebach sensitized to feel and respond as he did in the passage above? Was it by being led straightaway into the presence of the naked Host? No. It was by being habituated in the gestures, postures, and attitudes of reverence by means of all the external formalities of the old Mass -- all of those fastidious outward forms that conform the inward disposition of the soul to discern the Real Presence of the Person upon the Altar of Sacrifice.

Mosebach goes on to describe how the liturgical reformers of the 1960s succeeded in convincing many of the faithful that reverence for the Host, worship of the Host as the real physical appearance of Jesus Christ, had been unknown in the Church of the apostles and their early successors, and that the veneration of the Host was medieval invention. He then delves into an excursus on his personal discovery of precisely such veneration of the Sacrament in the most ancient traditions of the Eastern Churches. There is ultimately little question that the only period in Church history with decided liturgical 'reforms' detracting from Eucharistic veneration, beside the Protestant Reformation, has been that following Vatican II.

Mosebach again:
When I think of the abolition of the worship and veneration of the Host after Vatican II -- just as in the centuries following the Reformation -- a military image always presents itself to me, perhaps because military ceremonial still retains its sign language, to some extent. What I see is the degradation of Captain Dreyfus,1 so vividly described by a number of writers. After being [wrongfully] convicted as a German spy, he had to appear in full uniform in front of his regiment to hear his sentence. His punishment not only meant prison on the island of Cayenne: he also forfeited his military rank. The officer who pronounced the sentence next demanded that Dreyfus surrender his sword. The Captain's sword was broken over the officer's thigh; the shards were thrown at the feet of the supposed traitor. Then Dreyfus' epaulettes were torn from his shoulders and his emblems of rank from his breast.

To me, it is exactly the same when I see people still on their feet in fron of the elevated Host, when I see them entering a church without genuflecting, and receiving Communion in their outstretched hands. I myself, see it as a degradation, a pointed, symbolic refusal to give honor. Incidentally, Communion in the hand is inappropriate, not because the hands are less worthy to receive the Host than the tongue, for instance, or because they might be dirty, but because it would be impossible to rinse every participant's hands after Communion (that is, to make sure no particles of the Host are lost).
The new outlook sees all the fastidious formulas, prescriptions and proscriptions of the old Mass as representing a flight away from actuality. It wants to simplify things, demystify things, demythologize things and get to the essence of things. However, in doing so, it misses the counter-intuitive insight that the shoe is actually on the other foot: all of these external forms, in fact, facilitate our advance towards actuality and usher us into the precincts of the Real Presence of the Person of Christ Himself.


  1. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young French artillery officer of Jewish faith and ethnicity, was wrongfully convicted for treason in the late 19th century. The political and judicial scandal that followed ended ultimately in his full rehabilitation. He ended his career as a Lieutenant-Colonel and actively served during World War I at the end of which he was raised to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honor. (See "Dreyfus Affair," Wikipedia) [back]
Art Credit
Source: Michael Camille, Gothic Art: Glorious Visions (New York: Abrams 1996) via English Dept. website at

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