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Imposed (Ir)reverence?

Can you force someone to be more reverent? Is it possible to compel reverence from someone by demanding a particular prayer, position, or facial expression?

We can cultivate reverence. We can create environments that aid people in prayer. We can counsel others, offer spiritual companionship and direction, and inspire liturgical involvement and devotional piety in a way that encourages reverence. But I do not think it is possible to make people more reverent by making them do something which they are not ready to do. In fact, trying to do so would more often have the effect opposite of the intent, and instead impose irreverence.

Yet it is precisely in the language of “increasing reverence” during the Eucharist that there has been discussion in recent years of imposing particular postures – including how one receives communion. It has always been my position – as someone who has spent a decade instructing Eucharistic ministers and prepared adults and children to receive their first communion – that you should receive communion reverently.

"...make with the left a throne for the right hand, which recieves the King" -Cyril of Jerusalem, c. 313-386 AD

The Latin church itself prescribes two forms for this, in the hands and on the tongue. Dioceses and bishops’ conferences may add or stress elements of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, such that in some places we are asked to bow before receiving, as we proclaim ‘Amen’; others suggest a sign of the cross immediately after; in the Archdiocese of Seattle we remain standing throughout the communion procession as a sign of reverence, honoring the presence of Christ and the assembly’s act of communion with Him (and the Church), and honoring the liturgical integrity of the procession itself.

The Holy Father has himself weighed in on this, especially since he has been seen to prefer to administer communion in a particular fashion, and some commentators interpreted this to mean he was indicating a change. This is not entirely the case, however:

I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself.

The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of Mass events we hold at Saint Peter’s, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving Communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir.

In recent months, it seems this last, unique concern has trumped general liturgical principle, and since the beginning of Advent 2010, at St. Peter’s Basilica during papal masses (and only at papal liturgies, as far as I have seen) communicants are refused communion unless they receive on the tongue.

The first time this happened to me, it was quite jarring. There has been no announcement that I have found, it was just a change. In fact, it seemed that many of the Eucharistic ministers (who are always priests during the papal liturgies, though not necessarily so at other liturgies there) had not been informed. I thought, actually, that it was just the priest at my station “imposing reverence” as he saw fit. He even looked a bit smug. Looking up and down the aisle, some priests were still serving the host according to the communicant’s desire, and others were refusing ‘in the hand’.

Clearly, this did not instill reverence, but rather robbed the moment of its usual spiritual peace. As I watched people’s reactions, from tourists to young Italians, to one elderly nun in full habit, more than three-quarters went to receive on the hand and when they were refused, responded in surprise, confusion, or even disgust (the septuagenarian sister looked ready to ‘have words’ with the young priest, but then decided against it).

The second time I went to a papal mass with this new practice, the priest at my communion station was a friend and classmate. I was prepared, and this time noticed every minister serving in the hand only, and this time it was the ushers who were gesticulating to everyone to make it clear that communion was only available orally. My friend looked apologetic, and the priest next to him was confused, clearly not having been informed of this new rule, either. Again, though some people would have received this way in any case and others had been recently enough to know what to expect, others looked disconcerted, distracted, or dissatisfied. None appeared more reverent.

Then again, reverence is an interior orientation, not an exterior expression, so maybe they were.

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1 Comment

  1. […] ancient, the former is canonically the norm here in Italy. I have addressed these points here and here. Confessions during the […]

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