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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 steps 3 and 4.

Step 3:  Stop ringing bells

  There is an infamous description of Catholic worship as being impossible to understand but “supported by bells and smells!”  We need to be aware that some things seem to survive in some churches even when they have lost their meaning – and bells are among them.  It is worth noting “that the bell does not, nor did it ever, form part of the rubrics of the Missal.”  We may want to put all sorts of meaning to the use of bells, but they were basically not so much spiritual but practical.  The first bell, when the priest held his hands over the bread and wine, was a signal to let musicians and singers know that the ‘consecration’ was near.  In the days when the priest had his back to the people, the server who rang the bell was probably the only person who could see what was happening.  And in those days a choir often sung the Sanctus while the priest prayed the Eucharistic Prayer (usually called the ‘canon’ in those days) in silence.  Hearing the bell, the choir would then stop for the consecration and elevation, and then resume with the Benedictus immediately afterwards.

  “The fourth bell was also linked to an action: the priest drinking his cup which marked completion of the ‘Priest’s Communion’. …  In an older mindset this completed the actions one had to be present for in order to fulfil the obligation ‘to hear Mass’.  In effect, it was a signal to all but the most pious that they could now leave.”

  In between first and fourth bells were bells “marking the ‘high point’ of the Mass, the moment of the consecration.  The bells sometimes went along with incense, and torches.  But “given our liturgy today, and our awareness that a Eucharistic Prayer is far more than a ‘formula of consecration,’ bells are both unnecessary and confusing.  Removing them stops an interruption in the flow of prayer which, if not distracting, encourages false interpretations of what we, the People of God, are doing.”

Step 4:  Provide the cup to all

  “The long practice of not receiving Communion by the laity led to the disappearance of the cup by the 12th century at the latest, from all but the priest. …  It became a kind of Catholic orthodoxy that the cup was to be held firmly within the clerical sphere.  Vatican II was clearly perturbed by this and … what resulted was ‘permission’ for ‘Communion under both species’ on certain specified occasions. …  However, some bishops’ conferences (including our own) obtained permission for more general access to the cup …

  “If we have already seen the importance of the fraction (the breaking of the bread) … the revolutionary gesture of Jesus – sharing a cup with another – takes on a key significance.  The gesture was unknown to those who were at table with Jesus, and it was this gesture that was distinctive for his followers. …  The willingness to share the cup of Jesus in the community shows our willingness to become Jesus’ disciples.”

  We must not allow ourselves to forget the command of Christ that we should eat and drink. The command is addressed to us all and not just to priests.  “Since the early 4th century, everything by way of title, privilege, activity, lifestyle, status … that marked the difference between clergy and laity, was eagerly embraced and seen as the divine will.  So long as there were two classes at the eucharistic banquet – those who share in both of Jesus’ gestures and those who do not – that older version of the Church is perpetuated …  Vatican II put forth another vision of the Church based on our baptismal vocation, and all subsequent differentiation is to be seen in terms of service to the body of Christ.

  Vatican II put forth a vision of the Church based on our baptismal vocation with any differences to be seen only in terms of service to the body of Christ.  “Having been baptised, we all need to share in the cup of the Lord.”