"To some, Vatican II reforms represent a sellout pure and simple to Protestantism. After all, it was Martin Luther who insisted the liturgy be in the common language of the people, that more attention be given to scripture readings and to preaching, that the congregation be urged to sing, that the priest face the people, not the tabernacle, that the host be received in the hand and that the cup be available for everyone at Mass. These are now the approved practices in the Roman rite."

From ............ National Catholic Reporter

October 6, 1995

page 5



This article and the one that follows are parts three and four of an eight-part series on the sacraments by NCR special reports writer Robert McClory. He is the author of the recently published book Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and how Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church.

When the congregation comes up the center aisle to receive communion during Sunday Mass at St. Henry Church in Cleveland, they process—in the literal sense of the word. They move forward two by two in slow, steady, ceremonial style, while singing a communion hymn.

The eucharistic minister takes pieces of the consecrated bread, baked by parishioners, from a container held by another minister, looks each communion recipient directly in the eye and says with practiced deliberation, "the Body of Christ."

As she places the bread in the cupped hands of the recipients, she places her other hand under theirs in a kind of cradling gesture, gently touching them. Virtually everyone of the 250 people in the small church takes communion in the hand and everyone drinks from the cup. The communicants return to their places and remain standing and singing until the whole assembly has been served, the eucharistic ministers themselves receiving last. Only then does the congregation sit for two or three minutes in silent prayer.

St. Henry's is an integrated parish in a predominantly black section of southeast Cleveland. Its members are mostly lower-middle-class. In many respects it is typical of hundreds of urban parishes today. It is different, however, in the extraordinarily deliberate, reverent style of worship—so extraordinary, in fact, that its communion service was professionally filmed in 1993 by Liturgical Training Publications in Chicago and the result turned into a video for other parishes.

St. Henry's parishioners seem uniformly uninhibited about their liturgy and quite clear about what they do and why they do it. The marching, singing, touching, standing and eye contact are in some ways as significant to them as the eating. "I'm nourished here," says Eva Raines, "nourished through the prayers, through the contact, through the bread." Touching is important, says another parishioner. "Jesus touched people all the time."

Gorman Duffett says the eucharistic ministers' receiving communion last speaks powerfully to him — in a world where "everyone wants to be first."

"The people who baked the bread put their love and their prayers in it," says Cheryl Broussard, "so their life in a way is in our worship." Standing throughout the communion service tells the assembly "we're there for them," explains Rena Adams, who brings the Eucharist to ailing parishioners.

"Well be with them through all things. It's not just bread and wine that gets transformed," explains Patricia Douglas, "Its us. And not like lightning striking. It's a work in progress and every step counts." Jesuit Fr. J. Glenn Murray, who presides regularly at St. Henry's, finds irony in the fact that the Catholic church has done so much in the past 30 years to make the Mass a communal celebration, and still the actual reception of the Eucharist remains the most private part. "We're changing that here," he says

"We're trying to get across that this gathering is the body of Christ coming together to receive the Body of Christ."


In a real sense the Second Vatican Council gave the Eucharist, once a special preserve of the priesthood, back to the people. It said the faithful should take part "knowingly, devoutly and actively," that through the Eucharist the community "becomes Christ, a sign of God's presence in the world." But if the church was giving the Eucharist back to the people, it's still not clear after 30 years that everyone wants it back — at least not in the way it has been accepted at St. Henry's Parish. Many veteran Catholics born before Vatican II cling to a 400-year-old theology rooted in the Council of Trent. Many younger ones who relate not at all to Vatican II, or to Trent, are less than overwhelmed by all these symbols and what they perceive as the overworked concept of Jesus in our midst.

Trindentine eucharistic theology put high priority on the matter [bread and wine], the form [the words of consecration by the priest] and precisely how the believer must understand the presence of Jesus. The priest did not need a congregation to celebrate a valid Mass. The Mass had a quasi-automatic, infinite value even if nobody else was present, even if the priest celebrant was in the state of mortal sin.

Catholics "went to" Mass, "attended" Mass, "heard" Mass — largely as spectators viewing a holy thing done on their behalf by a duly consecrated intermediary between them and God. Receiving communion was an intensely personal experience: the reception of Jesus under the appearance of bread. It had nothing to do with the other people in the church: The symbolism of kneeling in the pew after communion and covering one's face spoke volumes about the ruling spirituality of the day.

Rejecting Protestant attempts to reinterpret the meaning of Eucharist, Catholics developed in the centuries after the Reformation a fervid, at times fanatical, devotion to the sacrament, not surely as food but as object of pure adoration. People "visited" the Blessed Sacrament or worshiped it encased in ornate receptacles for benediction or 40 Hours Devotion. In this way, they sought to join their own lives, their own sacrifices with the sacrifice of the Lord. The result was an intensely sincere and individualistic piety.

God seemed a transcendent being watching us from a great distance and deigning to enter this sinful world only in strange and mysterious ways — in the form of a wafer, or occasionally through a vision or a bleeding statue. In awe of the "prisoner of the tabernacle" Catholics declined frequent reception of communion simply because they did not feel worthy of the Holy One.

Despite its peculiarities, this spirituality had, and for some still has, a genuine attraction. It was the Blessed Sacrament that first drew Thomas Merton toward Catholicism, as he explained in 'The Seven Storey Mountain': "I tell you there is a power that goes forth from that sacrament, a power of light and truth, even into the hearts of those who have heard nothing of him and seem to be incapable of belief."


In 1910 Pope Pius X opened the window a crack when he urged more frequent reception of communion; the liturgical movement further widened the opening, insisting the Eucharist by its very nature is a participative event; and Vatican II blessed the winds of change when it gave official approbation to the new liturgy.

The public still does not realize how "revolutionary" is the change in our understanding of Eucharist brought about by the council "and the liturgical directions in which its thinking continues to move us," said Msgr. William Shannon, a founder of the 'Thomas Merton Society,' in a recent article in America magazine [ Jesuit publication ..... JP ].

The operative vocabulary reflects the new emphasis. The priest is now the "presider" at the eucharistic service, no longer the "celebrant," because the whole assembly is celebrating. The priest doesn't say the words of "consecration," but recites the "words of institution," so that stress is placed on the connection with Jesus at the Last Supper rather than on the priest as possessor of special powers.

After the council, some theologians and liturgists tried to promote the term "transignification" in place of "transubstantiation" in order to downplay medieval philosophical distinctions. At the very least, says Shannon, "the priest's role in today's Eucharist is a more reduced role than it was in the Tridentine liturgy. At center stage in the Eucharist is the assembly, not the priest." Without denying the real presence in the sacrament, the new theology speaks of an immanent presence of the Spirit of Jesus in all of creation; the world is sinful, yes, but redeemed even if it's not yet aware of its redemption. The Eucharist celebrates that fact, that immanent presence in the Eucharist and, more important, that presence in the assembly, which is the operative, earthly body of Christ.


To some, Vatican II reforms represent a sellout pure and simple to Protestantism. After all, it was Martin Luther who insisted the liturgy be in the common language of the people, that more attention be given to scripture readings and to preaching, that the congregation be urged to sing, that the priest face the people, not the tabernacle, that the host be received in the hand and that the cup be available for everyone at Mass. These are now the approved practices in the Roman rite.

When proposals arise to remodel older churches by placing the altar in or near the center, some parishioners invariably protest. They see in this a lack of respect, an inappropriate familiarity, a dangerous elevation of the human, a loss of transcendence.

Sheila McLaughlin, director of the Office for Divine Worship in the Chicago archdiocese says she averages five letters or calls a week complaining that some rubric regarding the Blessed Sacrament has been violated or some unapproved innovation introduced at a parish liturgy. "Some people are very, very sensitive," she said, "and seem to find heresy everywhere."

Where it is available, the Tridentine Mass still draws people, not all of them gray-bearded nostalgia buffs. And Pope John Paul has approved a new religious order whose mandate is the promotion of the old Latin, Tridentine liturgy. Its advocates see it as the only "truly authentic" form of Catholic worship.

There is something threatening about theology and liturgy that speaks insistently about finding God in horizontal relationships, says R. Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame University history professor who writes often on Catholic belief. There is a comfort, he says, in the more traditional, vertical relationship, in sitting back and letting the priest be the one "in touch with God."

And, he adds, "there is appeal in making the church the kingdom of God with high, protective walls. When the walls come down, the sacredness seems to have been removed," so people want to go back to "the old ways."

Ironically, notes Appleby, it was Vatican II that went back to ''the old ways": the ancient sense of Jesus present foremost in the assembly, the Eucharist as celebration, the sacred bread as nourishment.

"What is occurring," he says, "is an attempt to recover the authentic sense of Catholic sacramentality."


Liturgists are often impatient that the recovery has gone so slowly and its expected fruits are less plentiful than expected. In a major address to liturgists last year, Sacred Heart Sr. Kathleen Hughes, academic dean at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, aired her concerns:

"Why after so many years of a reformed ritual do we not appear to be appreciably more just and loving, closer to the God who draws us together and more ready to care for one another ? ... Have we yet discovered what active participation — the watchword of the 20th century liturgical movement — demands of us? Can we ..... release the symbol power of the liturgy, the sacred signs, the objects, the movements ... and above all, the sign value of one another as co-offerers with Christ?"

The solution, Hughes says, will probably not be found in more scholarly research or even in Instruction about worship: "I have been persuaded that the doing of liturgy well, simple and prayerful celebration, is the absolutely basic catechesis, after which it is possible to distill theology from such experience." In other words, you have to experience it to understand it.

But Appleby thinks catechetical instruction does have a lot to do with the problems and their solution. After Vatican II, he says, "teachers felt liberated from the old ways." CCD and other programs became very eclectic, excessively experience-oriented, "a pastiche of Catholic teaching rather than setting up some kind of foundation."

The fact is that priest presiders at the Eucharist also became liberated. In a mighty struggle to be hip and relevant, they often managed to offend everyone, regardless of whether their theology was immanent, transcendent or nonoperative.

The Vatican Council "got it right," says Gabe Huck, director of Liturgy Training Publications, when it said full, conscious and active participation in the Eucharist will not happen unless "the pastors themselves become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy and make themselves its teachers." Unfortunately, says Huck, the bishops "didn't go home and make that one all-important thing happen. Maybe they couldn't have. But at least they had the right idea, and we can go back and start any time we have the will."

The reverent approach characteristic of St. Henry's worship exemplifies what can happen when people have "the will." More than 10 years ago, then pastor Fr William Karg and liturgy director Gerry Kyncor began talking to people about worship and listening to their reactions; the dialogue has continued.

When Murray became involved in the liturgy, he started "preliminary gathering" sessions before every weekend Mass. For five or 10 minutes the congregation prepares with prayer, song and instruction. "We're trying to sense that the whole rite is about communion," says Murray. "It's in the posture of the people, their voices, the touching, the facial expressions. It's about communing with one another and welcoming one another. It's communion in the full sense." But after 400 years of thinking about communion as private reception of one's personal Jesus, Catholics aren't going to change overnight, says Murray. "So I tell them, if we as a people can't stand together and sing together, how will we ever do the difficult work of reconciliation, compassion, justice and mercy in the world?"

[Picture caption] - William Lewis places consecrated bread in the cupped hand of Margarete Hinkle as Cora Williams assists by holding the dish of hosts at St. Henry Church, Cleveland. [Picture caption] - Betty Cross of St.Henry Church drinks from the chalice.