At the annual gathering of the priests of the Diocese last October the speaker was Tom O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at Nottingham University. Tom gave the priests of the diocese Six Simple Steps which could go some way to achieving Vatican II’s vision in our celebration of the Eucharist. This month we take a look at the first two.
Step 1: Abandon using the tabernacle at the Eucharist
“It is clear from the instructions in the Missal, and a battery of other instructions in other sources of liturgical law, that the practice of using mostly hosts that are reserved in the tabernacle for distribution at Mass or, worse yet, only consecrating a host for the priest-celebrant are … contrary to the liturgical books.” (US Bishops, Washington 1987) So, changing from the practice of always using the tabernacle for Communion at Mass cannot be criticised as “acting beyond the law”. There may be very exceptional times when it may be partly necessary, but those who desire that the Church’s liturgical law be as fully followed as possible should be those most anxious to ensure that the tabernacle is never opened until all Christ’s faithful have shared Communion.
Not all that long ago, people used to refer to “getting Mass and Communion – treating them as distinct events, when it was common for fewer to ’go to Communion’ than were present at Mass” and for some people to “leave after the ‘Priest’s Communion’ which was helpfully indicated by the ringing of a bell. As such, Communion had become a commodity, a by-product of the Church’s Eucharistic activity. All sense that the Eucharist was a banquet, a sharing in the Lord’s table, was effectively eliminated from consciousness. It was the reflection of this disjointed view that was the spur to the whole reform of the liturgy: but in places the continued use of the tabernacle persists.” It may be that those who do not understand why these things are important are for us “a barometer of how shallow is our renewed theological understanding” of the liturgy offered to us by Vatican II.
“The simple reality is this: we gather for the Lord’s banquet, over the food of that banquet, an event that takes place in the created order, here and now. We have offered praise to the Father, and it is this food that is to be shared among us! Moreover, we will take some of this food to those in our community who cannot be with us: we will keep some of it back so as to be able to have food for the dying (viaticum): and as an incidental consequence we have the Blessed Sacrament for worship outside Mass. But particles from one Mass have no place at another.”
“It seems extraordinarily strange that none of our sources from Scripture, which give us ‘an account of the institution’ of the Eucharist, places a Eucharist Prayer in the mouth of Jesus or preserves even a hint of what he said! All they tell us is that he prayed – indicated by the verbs ‘bless’ and ‘thank’ – to the Father, but not one word of this prayer is given. The only words we have are comments on the significance of the action he has already performed: breaking a loaf and sharing it with them.” This absence can probably be explained by the fact that, though this prayer could take many forms, people in those days generally knew how to make up such a prayer in their tradition and would use such a prayer very often. It was known as a Jewish table prayer.
But what was so different about Christ’s praying was the action that followed it: the loaf was broken and shared. Each taking a share of the one loaf “was their having a share in him, a part in him. They were his body because they all ate of the one loaf. It was the breaking and sharing of the loaf that was distinctive … Breaking and sharing is not simply a distribution function but central to the whole event’s significance. Moreover, it is at the heart of the theology of the Church, priesthood, and liturgy that was proposed by Vatican II.”
“Our Catholic practice has sadly been far from ideal.” Deviations from tradition include changing from real to unleavened bread (by the tenth century) and from one loaf to pre-cut pieces (probably by the year 1000) making the fraction (breaking) almost unnecessary. “Now, however, the instructions encourage a fraction, and it is time that it became a reality once more … Later on, perhaps, a member of the assembly might even be asked to provide a freshly baked loaf!”