Rorate Caeli

Traditional Catholics and the Enforced Desert: Dare we enter?

A short while ago I wrote a piece about how we can use the situation in which we Catholics find ourselves because of the Corona-19 Virus pandemic to deepen our Catholic faith.   In many parts of the world we find ourselves in the unprecedented situation where the faithful cannot attend Mass and therefore cannot receive Holy Communion.  I tried, perhaps too subtly, in my previous article, to suggest that this situation in which we find ourselves is an opportunity to deepen our Catholic faith and our understanding of the Blessed Sacrament.  And I still believe this and urge everyone to take advantage of this time of deprivation of the Mass and of the reception of Holy Communion to deepen our Catholic faith.  But to urge Catholics to do this and not point out what is in the way of this deepening of our faith in these times of pandemic and cancellation of all public Masses and, mirabile dictu, cancellation of public celebrations of Holy Week and Easter, would be a pastoral dereliction.  As a priest, this is not only an objective situation that causes me astonishment and personal grief.  It also forces me to dig deeper into my faith, my Catholic faith, yes, to try to understand, albeit through a glass darkly, yet trying to understand what this means for the Church and for the faithful, what it means for our faith. 

The current situation has exposed a quasi-paradox.  The faithful for the most part accept the reasons for the suppression of public Masses, namely that such proximity of people in a relatively small space would contribute to the spread of the Corona Virus.   What I would call the typical Novus Ordo Catholics, whose experience of the Mass is only that which came about after the imposition of the Novus Ordo Mass by Paul VI, is not fazed by the lifting of the Precept of Obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. What must be added here is that the number of Catholics attending Sunday Mass has fallen dramatically since the Novus Ordo was introduced—this data is accepted by all as objective--and the question can be asked whether if the legal precept of the Church were nullified how many Catholics would indeed come to Sunday Mass. 

The surprising and to me ironical opposition to the cancellation of public Masses has come mainly from what we can call Traditional Catholics.  That term must be parsed into its many conjugations and tenses, but the outcry comes mainly from those who see this as a denial of their right to receive Holy Communion at Mass. The deep and almost comical irony of this situation must not be lost on God.  God’s appreciation of irony with respect to mankind is part of his infinite love for us.  One can much more easily explain the lack of opposition from the great majority of Catholics who regularly attend the Novus Ordo Mass.  If they feel discomfited by the present situation it is not because they feel deprived of the opportunity to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is for  the Catholic the sublime act of the worship of God.  For most of them have no idea that the Mass is a sacrifice and that their presence at the Mass is to assist in the deepest sense the priest—not the minister but the priest who offers sacrifice—in the offering of the Son to the Father, the offering of Good Friday but in an unbloody way, for the living and the dead, for themselves and all they love, living and the dead.  Their experience of Mass is for the most part a community gathering at which one hears readings and a sermon—sorry, homily—where bread and wine are brought to the altar by representatives of the community, which are offered to God as bread and wine and then somehow become the true Body and Blood of Christ to be consumed by the people.

The fact is that according to many and constant surveys many Catholics do not believe that what they receive in Holy Communion is the body, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.  For many, if not most, what they believe they are receiving is a symbol, an important symbol, which somehow is the point of coming to Mass, their gift from God for making the sacrifice of coming to church for this hour.  Now some may retort that this is cynical and not true at all, etc. etc.  But my experience as a priest of 36 years is the basis of my observation.  This does not deny that most people who come to Mass are not pious or that their heart is not in the right place.  It is that they believe less in the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist than the Methodists among whom I grew up and who knelt at a Communion rail to receive what they believed to be just blessed bread and wine.

And for the great majority of Novus Ordo Catholics—again, I speak from years of experience—receiving Holy Communion is the point of the Mass. They endure the readings and the homily and the forced communitarianism—a perpetual replaying of the 1970s-- so that they can come up to receive the Body of Christ in their hands and then feed themselves (something that always shocks me—that they feed themselves) and then turn and go back to their pews to wait—sometimes—for the end of the Mass.  If you told these good people that the essence of the Mass is the Sacrifice of the Son to the Father for the living and the dead, they would stare at you as if you were speaking Martian.  The deep protestantization of the Mass, where the homily becomes deeply important to the experience of Mass, and where the priest facing the congregation becomes the facilitator of the Mass experience—the contrast between this and how the Mass was experienced for almost 2000 years is deeply real. 

Given this degradation of the understanding of the Mass, it is no wonder that the past fifty years have seen the proliferation of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside the Mass.  Pious Catholics are not unintelligent and not shy about getting what they want and think they deserve spiritually quite apart from what the clergy give them.  Hence, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass, sometimes perpetual, has grown in practice multifold in the past fifty years.  I would submit that this practice, although with valid dogmatic bases, has furthered the misunderstanding among the people of the meaning of the Mass itself.

And so we come to the remarkable fact that with respect to the reception of Holy Communion at Mass there is no difference in most cases between Novus Ordo Catholics and Traditional Catholics.  It is true that there is no huge outcry from Novus Ordo Catholics about the abrogation of the precept for Catholics to attend Sunday Mass, for in their understanding they are merely being told that they cannot receive Holy Communion in whatever fashion they understand this.  But for many Traditional Catholics to take this away is to deprive them of the most important thing in their spiritual life. Irony of all ironies!  It is the Traditional Catholics who have forgotten that the essence of the Mass is the worship of God, which act is the giving of oneself to the God who gave himself to us in a total way in the Cross of Jesus Christ.  For most of the Church’s history the reception of Holy Communion at Mass was not common practice.  We read in the lives of the saints how they would prepare to receive Holy Communion by fasting and prayer and receive only several times a year.  The fact that the Church “requires” the reception of Holy Communion only once a year must give us pause about the current unthinking practice of receiving Holy Communion every Mass every Sunday or even every day. Without being negative about St. Pius X’s encouragement to receive Holy Communion more frequently, we must rethink within the Tradition of the Church what reception of Holy Communion means in relation to assisting at the Sacrifice of the Mass.

How many Traditional Catholics know that no Missal before the Missal of St Paul VI even had a mention or rite for the Communion of the people?  All of this in no way is to say that frequent Communion is not a good thing.  It is to say that in this time in which the Church cannot celebrate Holy Mass publicly, in this time of enforced desert, we must think and rethink the place of Holy Communion in the Mass and the spiritual meaning of Communion in the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

We are called in this singular situation in which we find ourselves, where we are called to give up not only our presence at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass but just as important our presence to each other, which presence is the means of love, we are called to dig deeper into the Cross of Jesus Christ, not in some objective way, but rather what it means for me, how my faith in the Cross of Jesus Christ forms my reality, that reality that always involves my brother and sister in the deepest way, that reality that teaches me what love ultimately is and what my obligation is to carry out that love in my life.  This takes courage.  It takes courage to refuse to glide on the tracks of unthinking piety.  It takes courage to face what is at stake: life or death.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla