Updated: Oct 31
About three decades ago, as the term “chaos theory” became popularized, one of the images used was that of a butterfly beating its wings on one side of the world and a storm eventually erupting on the other side. In practice not really that simple, but as an image, it captured the idea that a small perturbation—in mathematical terms, a non-linear factor—can have non-predictable and significant consequences. I suggest that this image can be helpful for how priests might think about one practice that I believe is essential for the community’s active participation in the Eucharist, but which very few priest-celebrants do, even though the liturgical rubrics consider it the presumed or default practice. If all priests and parishes were to consistently implement this small practice, the Eucharist will still look the same, but there would be, I think, over time unexpectedly large (positive) consequences for how the Eucharist shapes the Church as a whole.
The Church provides a set of liturgical guidelines—rubrics—so that the Eucharist is celebrated properly and has a similarity wherever it is celebrated. Although it is very important not to become a slave to those rubrics—turning Eucharist into a static performance of words and actions with little personal or cultural energy or dynamism—there is one guideline that I think is crucial but nearly every parish Eucharist omits, even with those who have priests who are rigid sticklers for following all the other rubrics slavishly. Which guideline? The one that says: “It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the Priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass and that, in the cases where this is foreseen, they partake of the chalice, so that even by means of the signs Communion may stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated.” (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, #85). The previous version of the General Instruction actually had stronger wording about the importance of all receiving from the bread consecrated at the Mass in which they are present. The end result of ignoring this guideline? The Eucharist becomes substantially the same as a communion service and focuses on the assembly gathered as a collection of individuals rather than a community being shaped into the Body of Christ. Moreover, this practice of “going to the tabernacle” reinforces the false notion that the priest alone is truly necessary for Eucharist, and minimizes the meaning of the active participation of all present at the Eucharist.
Because our Tradition has so strongly emphasized the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, in times past we have settled too often for a type of “spiritual communion” (it is enough that I see and acknowledge the Real Presence at the consecration and unite my heart to that Presence at communion or adore that Presence outside of Mass). Or, alternatively and very often today, for an individualized communion, where all that matters is that I receive the Blessed Sacrament and feel personally close to the Lord, and so it is inconsequential whether that communion was consecrated at this Mass, or came from the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, or whether I receive it as part of the Sunday Eucharist, and it certainly does not matter who is at Mass with me. That simple rubric that the faithful should, most desirably, receive communion from the bread and wine consecrated at that Mass undercuts these truncated understandings of communion and keeps Eucharist truly the action of the people gathered at that time. It also maintains the Church’s understanding of the reserved Eucharist: so that communion is available when needed for the seriously ill and dying and that churches and chapels can be places of prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Tabernacles are not storehouses so that we have enough communion for Sunday Masses. Otherwise, why not have a few priests in each diocese consecrate multi-thousands of extra hosts at various Masses, so that these can be transported to the far reaches of the diocese for use on Sunday where there is no priest?
Think about our own experience of Eucharist. Is the key to our participation the reception of communion? Is that the high point of the Mass? If so, then very quickly, as long as I receive communion, whether from the consecrated hosts in the tabernacle or from the bread consecrated at that Mass, I am satisfied. I am there to relate to God in Christ Jesus and it does not matter who else is there with me, whether I acknowledge them, or what they are going through in their lives. Now, in one way it is better to think of Communion as the high point rather than the Consecration, so that our participation in the Eucharist is connected to being fed by the Body of Christ. But neither Consecration nor Communion are the high point of the Mass in the Church’s understanding! In light of the Second Vatican Council, the Eucharist is seen as a whole, and if one had to name a high point, it really is the sending forth at the end of the Eucharist. We, who have gathered at the invitation of the risen Lord, who have opened our lives to be shaped by the living Word, who have offered our entire lives and connected all that we are to the once-for-all, never ending sacrificial offering of Jesus through the offering of praise and thanksgiving of the Eucharistic Prayer, who have been bonded together by Christ not just in a one-one intimate relationship with him but as a community of disciples, whose sharing in communion makes each of us a sharer in one another’s lives, are now sent forth in faith by the risen Lord to be the Body of Christ broken and the Blood of Christ poured out for the unity and salvation of the world. We do that as a Body, not simply individually.
What we receive at communion is the Body and Blood of Christ, yes. But not removed from this time and space. Rather, we receive the living Presence , which the risen Lord in the Spirit makes possible here and now in and through the people celebrating with us. It is not just that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. It is also true that the Lord takes the lives of those present as they are offered and makes it part of this Eucharist and therefore this communion I receive here and now. To receive communion within the context of a Mass is to be intimately united to all that everyone present has offered at that Eucharist. That is why the Church stresses the obligation—really better expressed as a fervent desire—that all be present at the Sunday gathering. In that sense every Eucharist is unique. Every reception of the Body and Blood of Christ is uniquely tied to what the Lord has done with the gift that is brought before him—the lives of those present at this Eucharist and at that moment, open to becoming the Body of Christ together here and now. The communion I receive is a communion with Christ and with the community.. That is why the General Instructions, in another rubric, state that the whole assembly share a common posture during communion, standing, until all have received, and during that time the assembly sings. Although later clarifications from the U.S Bishops allow for kneeling after communion so as not to undermine long-standing devotional practices, the norm is to share a common posture and participate actively throughout the whole of communion (usually by singing), because my communion is not completed until all have received. Before and after a person receives communion, we are together praying for all who are receiving. Then we are given a period of silent reflection for our own personal prayer. In short, what every Sunday Eucharist is designed to do (where ideally the whole community is gathered together) is to re-member us, to re-constitute us as the living Body of Christ in this time and place, so that we are nourished (by Word and Sacrament) and ready to be sent out as that Body for the good of the world.
I have had discussions with fellow priests about how impractical it is to try to implement this rubric on a consistent basis. But, really, it is a small thing to follow this rubric. Start to run out of communion at a given Mass? Then begin breaking the hosts in two, and further if necessary, and estimate better the next time. Although the practice of using hosts previously consecrated is not forbidden, it is theologically more consistent to break hosts consecrated at that Mass for communion to all the faithful present, then it is to run to the tabernacle. At the very least, do not bring hosts from the tabernacle during the Lamb of God, as though that is typical for the Eucharist and, in effect implying, that there is no difference between a communion service and Eucharist. If there is no difference, then just what is Sunday Eucharist all about? Too many hosts left over in the tabernacle? If the tabernacle becomes overflowing with consecrated hosts, then have a few properly instructed, mature people help consume them at another time.
Please think about what the “butterfly effect” could be with that one small change, if people experienced it consistently at every Sunday Eucharist. What effect might it have “on the other side of the world” (over time)? Perhaps people begin to experience and identify the Eucharist as a dynamic, new, living reality each time we celebrate it. Perhaps more people begin to recognize that the gift of active participation at Eucharist is not about reciting some prayers together or singing together, but about intentionally offering ourselves to each other though the risen Jesus, so that when I fail to actively participate I am withholding from the Lord a portion of myself that He wants to transform into his Body and Blood for others. Longer term effects? Parishes might finally stop replacing Eucharist with communion services. Wouldn’t that be a positive development! As long as people think, “Well, no priest here but we still get to receive communion,” it will be very difficult for us to understand the way the Sunday Eucharist draws us in, shapes us and unites us together in Christ, and only then invite us to communion, not as an end in itself but as the bondedness and nourishment we will need for the week ahead when we are sent forth. An even wider, more dynamic “perturbation”? Maybe a recognition that ordained ministry needs to be opened to a wider pool of candidates so that all Sunday communities who gather in the Lord’s name and at the Lord’s invitation can truly celebrate Eucharist. In short, Christian communities have a “right” to the full experience of Eucharist because the Eucharist is essential to being Church. Who the ordained presider is cannot be more important than making the Eucharist available to all the faithful. Let’s “flutter our wings” in this small way—no communion from the tabernacle. Who knows the effect it could stir up down the road?