Common Wisdom: Habeas Corpus

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times at my parish this spring. On Palm Sunday I took the kids to the Children’s Mass scheduled before Sunday School and, all set to be harrowed by the traditional reading of the Passion, was harrowed instead by one of those grating liturgical innovations as the priest “invited” the congregation to be seated.

When this sort of thing happens, the traditional Catholic finds himself tempted either to rage or to despair. Temperamentally, I incline more toward despair, but I worked up enough resolution to write a firm though respectful, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger letter to our pastor. This sort of thing is like writing to the New York Times; you don’t expect to work a revolution (and I didn’t), but you do it so that you can recount your story later to have an answer for the person who asks, “But why didn’t you do something?”

A mere two weeks later, and I have set myself another letter to write: This one in gratitude to the very same pastor for instituting perpetual Eucharistic adoration in our parish.

Months ago a group of parishioners requested it. Our pastor agreed to prepare a special chapel, provided they could demonstrate sufficient support by obtaining in advance commitments to cover twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A visiting priest preached the benefits of perpetual adoration at all Masses, and eight hundred people signed up.

Work on the new little chapel went on through the winter. I don’t know what purpose the little space originally served, but with its worn brick floor and exterior wall, and the low ceiling vaulting over the altar, it conveys the feeling of a sacred space—our own private catacomb. On the side wall hangs a large graphic crucifix, complete with red-painted scrapes on knees and elbows, which my youngest child, perennially running to keep up with the rest, readily identifies with.

But the focus is on the antiquely ornate monstrance, with rays shooting out in splendid profusion from all sides (who produced it, from where?) and the precious treasure it holds before our eyes.

I came out of that chapel today flooded with a sense of how amazingly blessed we are to have Christ still dwelling among us. What a wildly undeserved privilege, to be able to drop in on him, to spend time with him. I recall the old French peasant who would kneel in front of the tabernacle of St. John Vianney’s church, and when asked what he did there, replied, “I look at him, and he looks at me.”

Just so. Think of all those many Christian denominations whose churches are of no special use to them most of the week because they merely occupy space absent a preacher and congregation. Barring High Church

Anglicans, how many Protestants would think of dashing into church for a visit, as urban Catholics so often do on their way to or from work or errands?

Almost all churches are kept locked nowadays, to secure them against burglary or sacrilege. But when Protestant churches are locked up, there is no great deprivation to their flocks and no suspension of homage to God. When Catholic churches have to be barred, they not only lock out vandals and thieves but also lock in the continuing physical presence of Our Lord on this earth. He is locked away from the people he died for, those whose innermost yearnings and hungers can be fulfilled only by him.

Corpus Christi—Body of Christ. I arrived at the chapel for my first hour of Eucharistic adoration a bit dubiously, since I was accompanied by my three-year-old. Not long after I settled her down with prayerbook pictures and a plastic rosary, four young priests or seminarians, dressed in black suits and Roman collars and looking like Montgomery Clift in I Confess, entered and knelt down with rosaries and breviaries.

Their reverence before the Sacred Host brought home with great power the sacred character of the priesthood. I temporarily abandoned sublime thoughts and petitions for needy friends to pray that my three-year-old would not disturb them, and she, awed into silence, rose nobly to the occasion. As the quartet left, one of them handed my daughter a medal (A medal! Where were these lovely priests from? Would I ever see them again?) with the pope’s reproduction on one side and Mary, Queen of Poland, on the other.

Corpus Christi—Christ here among us still, two thousand years later, his body and blood our food and drink and we united with him, becoming one with him, becoming members of the Body of Christ. Thanks to the merciful love of Christ, and thanks to his priests—which, by the way, reminds me of that other letter I have to write to my pastor.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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