My first recollections of an overwhelming sense of being in the presence of God occurred in the mid-1950s whilst attending Friday Benediction with my kindergarten classmates. The incense, the strange beautiful Latin hymns, the numerous candles, the church crowded with people whose devotion was tangible even to a small child; these all contributed to a sense of awe in the presence of God. I understood it at five. No doubt, so did my friends.
The nuns certainly considered it important to teach us how to behave in God's sacramental presence. They made sure we genuflected properly, that we kept silent and paid attention to what was happening in the sanctuary. We were at church to talk to God, not to each other, and woe betide us if we turned around!
Perhaps the greatest impact on me at this tender age was the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday. I vividly recall the canopy and the serious face of the priest as he hugged Our Lord in the ciborium and passed solemnly from the high altar to the altar of repose.
A small child learns a great deal from what is seen and heard. Our parents and the good nuns taught us well. Many children made a short visit to the Blessed Sacrament on the way to and from school. I am sure it still happens in some parishes where it is encouraged.
In the mid-1960s, some of my friends and I helped the sacristan on Saturdays, cleaning candlesticks, ironing albs and mopping the sacristy. We regarded it as a great honour. We were never allowed to touch the sacred vessels, nor the linen cloths used for Mass. These were for the devout care of the sacristan. The first time I was sent onto the sanctuary with some candlesticks I was overwhelmed by holy fear, what we might call in retrospect a healthy sense of awe in the presence of God, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
As I reflect in the 1990s, I realise I am describing the past, not the present. I believe few could deny that there has been a widespread decline in devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the last three decades.
My experience is as a Catholic who frequents many Sydney parish churches and some in the country whilst on vacation. Almost every day I am amazed at the apparent disregard for the Divine Presence in the tabernacle. A case in point is the church which erupts immediately after Mass - within minutes of Communion, a market place atmosphere prevails with general conversation, even loud laughter. Those who choose to linger after Mass to make a thanksgiving are, like the Blessed Sacrament, ignored.
During Mass, the customary acknowledgement of the Blessed Sacrament, that is, genuflection when passing in front of the tabernacle, is no longer widely observed. A significant number of ordinary Catholics still genuflect when entering or leaving the church - but not always those on the sanctuary. Acolytes will go to the tabernacle at Communion time to remove the ciborium and, more often than not, fail to genuflect. Genuflection itself has given way to bowing in some parishes. Traditionally, Catholics bowed to the altar but genuflected before the Lord in the tabernacle. We bow to people and to sacred or special objects: a judge in court; the audience when an actor or musician acknowledges applause; the priest; the altar and the crucifix. Whilst we also bow the head when we use the Holy Name, we reserve genuflection for the presence of the Divine. Genuflection to Our Lord in the tabernacle is a manifestation of belief in the Real Presence.
A priest or server who is particularly respectful to the Sacramental Presence of Our Lord is a great joy. The faithful can only be edified by the devotion of others and, in being edified, strengthened in belief and love for Our Lord really and bodily present in the Blessed Sacrament.
Signs of grace
The priest is "alter Christus" - another Christ - and we treat him with great dignity. Fortunate are those parishes whose priests set standards of respect in relation to the Blessed Sacrament. The manner in which they celebrate Mass, their devout genuflections, and their prayer before the tabernacle preceding and following Mass are positive signs of grace to be emulated by their people.
The norms of the Church regarding reception of Holy Communion are seldom observed in many Catholic churches. We are instructed to kneel or, if standing, to make some sign of adoration, such as genuflection. Many Catholics appear to be ignorant of the courtesy, nay adoration, we owe to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament at this most intimate moment of union with Him.
We who are parents see the urgent need to teach our children to respect our sacramental Lord in His house. We can heighten their sensitivity to His presence by making the Sign of the Cross or praying an aspiration when we pass the church. By taking them to visit Him regularly we deepen their friendship and love for Our Lord. By training them to genuflect properly, with their minds and hearts on Our Divine Lord, we give them the opportunity to practise holy actions, a pathway to holiness.
In the past, the principal characteristic of a practising Catholic was devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, both in external action and interior disposition. The greatest mystery of our Faith must not be allowed to become so familiar that we take it for granted. Constant outward acknowledgement of the Eucharistic presence is a reinforcement of internal belief and a stimulus for others. If the Divine presence at Mass and in the tabernacle after Mass is manifested consciously by Catholics, greater is the nourishment and strength they draw from the Blessed Sacrament.
Prayer can be expressed in thoughts, words and actions. We are an incarnational people and we often use bodily movements to express our prayer and praise. Our actions are a reflection of our belief. Customary manifestations of belief and adoration are not ostentatious but they are distinct symbols of our interior prayer. The central belief which sets our Catholic churches apart from any other place, the presence there of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, should be manifest in the actions of all believers both individually and collectively.
Catholics express their faith as much by actions as words.