Further Problems With American Eucharistic Practice

Christian Browne’s excellent critique of how receiving Communion-in-the-hand while standing are practices that might be reconsidered to strengthen American Catholics’ understanding of the Eucharist properly notes that these ideologically driven changes were required in no way by Vatican II or even the Holy See. Let me add three additional Eucharist-related phenomena bedeviling the “American Church” that also lack much of a doctrinal or theological base but which have become, for ideological reasons, part of the landscape of “American” Catholicism: extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, blessings in the Eucharistic procession, and the disconnect between the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.

Let me clarify up front what I mean by “ideological.” I maintain that two distinct factors have led to much of the current shape of American Catholic Eucharist praxis: a misguided feminism on the part of those who deem “priestesses” as possible, and a utilitarianism on the part of many clerics that sacrifices symbolism.

As Fr. Lawrence Porter points out in his Assault on Priesthood, Vatican II didn’t pay much attention to priests and even less to their cultic role. The Council was, in many ways, the Council of the laity, rightly stressing the universal call to holiness. The Council was also rightly the Council of the bishops, completing the work of the prematurely adjourned Vatican I by rounding out its doctrine of the Petrine Ministry with the role of the bishop (which includes the Bishop of Rome). The priest, however, got short shrift in the Conciliar documents.

Because of that lack of balance, just as after Vatican I the focus on the papacy and papal infallibility led to the worst of Ultramontanism (being “more Catholic than the Pope”), so after Vatican II’s focus on the laity, a certain “levelling” psychology spread in the Church, downplaying if not denying the Council’s own explicit teaching about the “essential” difference between the priesthood of the faithful and the ordained priesthood. Expectations that married priests might be around the corner—and women priests not too far down the road—exacerbated that trend.

In that light, the changes in American Eucharistic practice that began in the 1970s reflect a certain mindset. Receiving Communion standing up emphasized our adult stature (never mind “unless you become like little children….”); receiving Communion in the hand downplayed the role of the priest and shifted focus to the “I” (while attributing a certain literalism to “take and eat” that, in other contexts, would certainly drive liturgists wild); celebrating Mass versum populum and moving altars to centers of churches also “democratized” the church, while the procession of men, women and nuns to distribute Communion further downplayed the role of the priest. (Lest little Johnny still have some ideas that the priesthood is worth pursuing, we also had to ensure that “altar boys” also underwent de-genderization as “altar servers”).

(Those were, of course, also the days that presumed that ecclesiastical unity would come as soon as we launched general intercommunion with other churches, regardless of whether we had any common idea of what the Eucharist represented, and that our best chance for ecumenical rapprochement lay in the imminent kiss of peace between Rome and Canterbury.)

Those who, of course, supported this levelling denigration of the cultic role of the priest felt emboldened to advance their agenda in the then NCCB-USCC, confident that even if Pope Paul VI were likely to wince, he would leave them to their own devices. In that, they were generally correct.

This levelling trend on one side found synergy in a utilitarian trend from another: priests. Many younger priests, products of seminary education in the late 1960s and 1970s, actually bought into that levelling (those who didn’t generally were evaluated out of the seminary). Many older priests, intimidated by their younger colleagues and having imbibed the clerical ethos that the greatest virtue was not so much charity as “peace and quiet,” rolled over and played dead. The declining number of priests also made it easier to slough “jobs” off on the laity.

Take the proliferation of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. That is, after all, their proper title, although from the typical post-Agnus Dei march on the altar, one would not guess that there is anything “extraordinary” about their presence. The rituals surrounding what most parishes do to prepare for distributing Communion are also not in the liturgical books, e.g., the rubrics make no provision for extraordinary ministers to be gathered, in quasi-concelebrant style, around the altar, waiting to receive Communion and then the sacred Species to distribute to others. Even the nomenclature has shifted to make it appear that the extraordinary is ordinary: in the typical American parish, they are simply “Eucharistic ministers,” with most people thinking they are just as “ordinary” (in the sense of expected to be there) as lectors and altar “servers.”

For priests, they serve a utilitarian function. In my younger days, all the priests in the parish emerged from the sacristy in every Mass to distribute Communion. Getting the laity to “do” that was obviously a labor-saving device. And—be it from devotion or ideology—there were those willing to take up the clerical slack. “Things” also went faster. Today, of course, in one priest parishes, the possibility of such arrivals of priests is diminished.

Regardless of the motives, however, the absence of priests distributing the Eucharist sends a message. It sends the message that priesthood and Eucharist might be separable. It sends the message that “handing out Communion” is a function to be accomplished by any available pair of hands (anointed or otherwise) rather than a symbolic act of a shepherd (remember, that is what “pastor” means) feeding his flock. An act pregnant with meaning is turned into a mere function to be done—the sooner, the better.

Consider, too, the growing phenomenon in some parishes where everybody comes up in the Eucharistic procession. Those who intend to communicate extend their hands (the “Communion-in-the-hand” issue, again), while those who do not cross their arms over their chests to receive a “blessing.”

Well, there’re a couple of things wrong with this picture. First, this is a Communion procession, not a first grade line in which everybody has to get a ribbon just for showing up and being there. Second, the Body and Blood of Christ surpasses any blessing, so why are we levelling these acts? Third, why are lay people conferring “blessings?” Fourth, does the phenomenon of everybody shuffling off down the aisle undermine the idea of “worthiness” to approach the Eucharist?

Finally, another post-Vatican II phenomenon touching the Eucharist is its severed nexus with the sacrament of Penance. Granted that, once upon a time, an excessive scrupulosity may have deterred some people from receiving the sacrament. I dare suggest that excessive moral scruples are not, however, a commonplace phenomenon in the typical American parish most Sunday mornings. When politicians whose job it is to promote the good of society vote for prenatal capital punishment and even defend it as “sacred ground” before lining up for Communion—and some American ecclesiastics wring their hands about whether to say “basta” to such scandal—one has to ask whether average Catholic’s concept of receiving Communion as expressing communion with God (“if you love me, you will keep my Commandments”) has been debased or lost.

In identifying issues with Eucharistic praxis in America, Christian Browne rightly puts our focus on how—wrongly—practices connected with Holy Communion in the United States have eroded important parts of our faith and identity. What’s most telling is that those practices are devoid of a rubrical base or warrant in the typical liturgical books. They often rest on the justification of the “spirit” of Vatican II. Fifty years later—and following the injunction of I John 4:1—we might deem certain spirits worthy of exorcism.

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ADDENDUM: In the repartee of comments following this article, a number of people pointed out that extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are applying their “baptismal gifts” to the Church.   Apart from the fact that being an extraordinary minister is not a Baptismal commission but a juridical concession, a further question arose about the sacramentology underlying what extraordinary ministers do.  Granted, a priest is essential to consecrate the Eucharist, but that does not mean that who distributes the Sacred Species is but a question of law.  What I argue in this article is that feeding God’s people is a symbolic, unitary act that should not be parceled into discrete functions: Fr. Joe consecrates, but Joe (and Josephine) distribute Communion.  Providing for the Eucharist is part of the priest’s spiritual fatherhood, his fruitfulness: just as we have gotten into big problems in sexual ethics by splitting motherhood into “genetic,” “gestational,” and “child-rearing” functions, so we are in trouble when we divide the act of feeding of the Eucharist into consecration and distribution functions.

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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