Holy Communion and the Real Presence: whatever happened to reverence?

Holy Communion and the Real Presence: whatever happened to reverence?

Christine McCarthy

We stand for Holy Communion. Almost the entire congregation receives - on the hand. The priest distributes Communion to half of the faithful; others receive from a female member of the congregation.

Some five minutes later Mass finishes. Loud whispers crescendo to noisy laughter and chatting. People stand in groups to discuss what they will have for lunch or where they will go for the holidays - all this in the church in the presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle.

Someone goes to the tabernacle without genuflecting, opens the door and takes out consecrated Hosts to be brought to the sick. Whilst carrying the Blessed Sacrament, this person then moves down into the body of the church chatting to those people lingering there.

I am describing the parish of St Chat-a-lot within the Walls; there are many such parishes across the world.

My parish

At my parish it is different. We stand for Holy Communion but genuflect prior to receiving; some receive on the hand, others on the tongue - it is their option. On Sundays the priest distributes Communion assisted by an acolyte dressed in an alb. Some five minutes later, Mass concludes but the congregation is silent - silent!

Many kneel to make their thanksgiving. Others talk and laugh and are joyful - outside the church and at a respectful distance so as not to disturb those who are praying, but more particularly out of reverence for Our Lord in the tabernacle. The priest emerges from the sacristy after Mass, kneels in the church to make his own thanksgiving and then moves out to talk to his flock. If Communion is to be taken to the sick, the priest does this and whilst the tabernacle door is open the people kneel and are reverent - the Lord's house is open.

There is an atmospheric, aesthetic and devotional chasm between the two situations described above. In the first, after Mass, there exists a market-place environment akin to that of a hall after a large public meeting. One could be forgiven for thinking that the congregation believes that once Mass has finished Christ is no longer present.

The psalmist writes of the Lord's dwelling place as His courts. The Lord is King, enthroned in majesty. The psalmist away from God's presence pines and yearns for His courts more than the weary watchman longs for daybreak, more than the parched deer for running streams. So great was Old Testament reverence for God's dwelling place. So much more so should we reverence the dwelling place of Christ in the tabernacle really and truly present as God and Man.

So why is my parish church different from many others?

Priests, I believe, have a potentially powerful position as leaders of their congregation and as shapers of attitudes. The Catholic people have always looked to the priesthood to set standards of belief and behaviour. If the priest chats to the parishioners in the church they take this as a cue for them to do likewise. If the priest spends time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, if he genuflects every time he passes the tabernacle, if he insists on silence in the church, he witnesses to his belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and to a firm belief in his own priesthood and its efficacy.

My parish priest loves the Blessed Sacrament. He insists on reverence in the church. This is exemplified by the reverence his people have towards Christ present in the tabernacle and by the love they have for Christ present in each other outside the church.

Let us return to the parish of St Chat-a-lot. Does the priest in charge still believe in the Real Presence? Yes. Does he lack a personal love for the Blessed Sacrament. No. The noisy atmosphere after Mass suggests at least a lack of leadership and a failure to enforce Catholic standards of reverence and good manners in the presence of God. It may mean that the parish priest of St Chat-a-lot has lost confidence in his own position as the keeper of standards of proper conduct and the norms of respect due to himself and to the sacramental presence of Christ.

It may mean that the growing laicisation of our churches and in particular the sanctuary, have resulted in pressure being placed on priests in general to conform to the standards of the congregation rather than the liturgical norms set by the Church. The priest tries to listen to the voice of his people," but this can only produce good fruit if the people are informed Catholics.

Prayer and action

One may ask if the situation prevailing in many churches can be reversed. The consensus across the world is that we are in the midst of a massive crisis of belief and practice. A reversal is not going to happen overnight. There are, I believe, two modes of reversal - prayer and action. Both are important.

The Holy Father has asked us to pray for the sanctification of our priests. We cannot expect them to be holy if we do not pray for them regularly.

We can by our actions witness to our own firm belief in and love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. We can maintain our own silence in the church. We can genuflect devoutly every time we pass the tabernacle and we can genuflect before receiving Communion unless the norm is to kneel in our parish. (Some act of adoration is required at this time).

We can be informed Catholics. The more we nourish our adult faith the greater will be our love for Christ and His Church. We can read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We can read the encyclicals and other documents of the Holy Father easily obtained from Catholic and many secular bookshops.

We can spend regular time in prayer in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament praying for our priests, our parish, our own family, the Holy Father and his intentions, the Church and vocations and we can make reparation for the many offences offered to Our Lord in His sacramental presence.

If we are sincerely intent on turning the noisy parishes into quiet and prayerful places of peace and adoration of the Lord, there is a sure-fire way of doing this but it requires co-operation and a good deal of personal commitment on the part of the faithful. This method has not been known to fail.

First pray for courage and God's help. Then ask your relatives, friends, acquaintances, even your religious non-Catholic friends to come to your church and spend one hour a week praying there. Draw up a roster to cover as many hours of the day and night as possible. Ask the parish priest to join the roster. If there are some hours that are well attended, he might be persuaded to expose the Blessed Sacrament. Ask him to do this himself - as a priest it should please him to do so.

There are many Catholics across the world who are so enthusiastic about maintaining their churches as places of quiet and peace, that they have established, with the approval of their parish priests, parishes of perpetual adoration. Their churches do not close. The faithful come hour by hour to spend time with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Vandalism decreases because there are always people in the church day and night. Parish community life is revivified. Sunday and daily Mass attendance increases, confessions increase, the love of the faithful for God and for each other becomes more vibrant, the lukewarm begin to return to the practice of the faith, and there are more vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

I know. My parish has perpetual adoration.

Christine McCarthy is a Sydney Catholic writer, mother and musician.

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