“It is stupid of modern civilization to have given up believing in the devil,” Monsignor Ronald Knox famously stated decades ago, “when he is the only explanation of it.” We might borrow his phrase and apply it to the liturgical life in the Roman Catholic Church in these last 50 years. Indeed, the chaos, disobedience, dreadful music, and irreverence that have characterized far too much of our liturgical life these last 50 years seem only explainable through the Devil’s machinations. How else to explain the twisted and tortured line that leads from “Panis Angelicus” to “Sing a New Church”?
But, please forgive me, if I am being gauche on three counts: First, numerous good people with good intentions have been involved in the Latin Church’s liturgical life in these last 50 years. Second, I’ve had the bad taste to suggest that the Devil exists. Third, I’ve tied the two together by suggesting that the Evil One might fool good people and even use good intentions to serve his purposes. This is a grievous offense. Or, so it would seem, if one reads the apoplectic reactions to a preface written by Robert Cardinal Sarah to a new study on communion in the hand published by an Italian priest, Don Federico Bortoli, under the title, The Distribution Of Communion On The Hand: A Historical, Juridical And Pastoral Survey.
In the preface, of which we only now have excerpts, Cardinal Sarah recalls the Fatima Apparitions and the Angel of Peace’s words to the poor children of Fatima that we must make reparation for men’s sins against the Holy Eucharist. Cardinal Sarah asks what these outrages are. He describes Black Masses, communion taken while in a state of mortal sin, and intercommunion. But these are not the only things that constitute profanations of the Sacrament. Other profanations include those “errors sown in minds of the faithful so they no longer believe in the Eucharist.” This means that “the most insidious diabolical attack consists in trying to extinguish faith in the Eucharist, by sowing errors and fostering an unsuitable way of receiving it.” The errors sown include “theologians who persist in mocking or snubbing the term ‘transubstantiation’ despite the constant references of the Magisterium.”
Cardinal Sarah then makes the seemingly straightforward and uncontroversial point that our praxis can foster or undermine our belief in the real, substantial presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine.
“If even the parish priest does not pay attention to the fragments [of the Host], if he administers communion in such a way that the fragments can be scattered, then it means that Jesus is not in them, or that He is ‘up to a certain point.’” To combat this “it is appropriate to promote the beauty, fittingness and pastoral value of a practice which developed during the long life and tradition of the Church, that is, the act of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue and kneeling.” (Note that Cardinal Sarah explicitly recognizes that this is a practice that organically arose in the life of the Latin Church; he doesn’t deny that it has not always been the practice.)
Cardinal Sarah then asks a natural question in light of the Church’s great tradition and plummeting belief in the Real Presence: “Why do we insist on receiving Communion standing and on the hand? Why this attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God?” With this book’s publication, Cardinal Sarah hopes “there can be a rediscovery and promotion of the beauty and pastoral value of” receiving communion kneeling and on the tongue in the Latin Church. “[T]his is an important question on which the Church today must reflect.”
None of this is controversial. In Cardinal Sarah’s typical firm but gentle manner he notes a problem—a lack of faith in the Real Presence—and notes some possible causes. He then suggests a potential response given the mystery we encounter in the Eucharist. If one believes what the Church teaches, including the true, real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it is not too much of a stretch to suppose that the Devil—if one indeed believes he exists—would try to find ways to undermine the belief in the Real Presence. And certainly one way the Evil One might do that is through a widespread practice by which communicants pop the Lord into their mouths like a mere Tic-Tac, not caring whether pieces of the host end up trampled under foot.
But this common sense was not well received by professional liturgists such as Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, or Rita Ferrone. Father Ruff’s response to Cardinal Sarah on the blog Pray Tell, is entitled: “Cardinal Sarah: Receive Communion Kneeling and on the Tongue to be on the Side of the Archangel Michael rather than Lucifer.” Rather than engage Cardinal Sarah’s actual argument and suggestions, Father Ruff states that Cardinal Sarah’s “grasp of what has happened in eucharistic theology in the last 75 years is simply shocking.” Father Ruff further states that he hopes that the Pope will “swat [Sarah] down really hard” (his emphasis, not mine.)
Ferrone, another frequent contributor to Pray Tell, takes her ire out on Sarah in the pages of Commonweal. Her essay is stunningly disingenuous and uncharitable. She says that Sarah’s preface demonstrates “that what he really does best is sow division.” She cites his previous mild suggestion that, where possible, the Latin Church return to its ancient, venerable, and until the last 50 years, unbroken, historical practice of priests celebrating Mass ad orientem as one example of his fomenting division. (Ferrone tendentiously describes this as a call for Mass “celebrated with the priest’s back to the people.”)
With respect to his preface, Ferrone writes that Sarah “fulminates over Satanism and black masses, and then—astonishingly—links these phenomena with receiving communion in the hand. He evaluates this liturgical practice as pure evil, a tool in the hand of Satan, promoting unbelief. Those who take communion in the hand are on the side of Lucifer in the great cosmic struggle of good against evil.” She tells her readers, if “you think I am exaggerating, see for yourself,” by reading his words. Ferrone then shoehorns her interpretation onto Sarah’s words by doing a supremely dishonest thing: she quotes Sarah’s words regarding Satan’s attack on the belief in the Real Presence and through the creative use of ellipses excises 800 words. She then combines Sarah’s words regarding the Devil’s attack on the Eucharist with his questions regarding why we as a Church insist on “communicating standing in the hand.” This is her proof that Sarah thinks those who take communion in the hand while standing are in league with the Satanists. If you think I am exaggerating simply compare the quotation in Ferrone’s piece with the full translation of Sarah’s excerpts here.
This jury-rigged quotation becomes the lynchpin upon which Ferrone calls for Pope Francis to remove Sarah’s as Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In the process, Ferrone continues her dissembling. First, she suggests that communion in the hand was the regular practice of Catholics for nearly the first millennium of the Church. This is hardly an uncontroversial historical claim. Indeed, the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff has stated, the “history of the liturgy . . . makes clear that rather early on a process took place to change this practice.” Indeed, “[f]rom the time of the Fathers of the Church, a tendency was born and consolidated whereby distribution of Holy Communion in the hand became more and more restricted in favor of distributing Holy Communion on the tongue.” This was motivated by two things “first, to avoid, as much as possible, the dropping of Eucharistic particles” and “second, to increase among the faithful devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Thus, even granting that this practice was widespread in the early Church—even the 900 years Ferrone claims to be normative—it says nothing about whether we should do it now, especially if the Church had such good reasons to embrace communion kneeling and on the tongue.
Nor is Ferrone correct to say that the practice of communion in the hand standing “was revived after Vatican II.” Here, Cardinal Sarah, demonstrates that he is quite aware of the history of liturgical practice in the last 50 years—and unlike many, Sarah is unwilling to deny that truth, even if it is hard. The practice of communion in the hand was not revived after the Council. It was imposed. Unlike the communion practices of the first centuries of the Church, this is beyond historical dispute. Communion in the hand began as an act of disobedience prior to the Council in parishes in Holland and spread around the world. In 1969, Pope Paul VI allowed, through an indult, reception on the hand under certain, specific circumstances. This “option” soon became normative in the United States and elsewhere. Reports of Catholics who want to commune kneeling and on the tongue being denied communion are legion. Indeed, there is a reason the Vatican has had to instruct priests that they may not deny communion to those who kneel. Attempt to take communion kneeling in most parishes in America and you will be looked upon as if you just arrived from Mars.
Ferrone’s essay, however, avoids the very real question that Cardinal Sarah is willing to ask directly: Why has belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist diminished? (Some surveys suggest that most Catholics do not believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist.) Why have communion lines gotten longer but confessional lines shorter? If we take seriously that we are embodied souls whose bodily actions both affect and effect what we believe, is it really so unreasonable to think that changing our practice of receiving communion, overnight, might undermine belief in the Real Presence and the sublimity of communion?
(By the way, I write this as a cradle Catholic who has probably taken communion in the hand 97% of my time as a Catholic. While I don’t believe I was lacking in faith in Christ’s real presence then, I do believe kneeling and receiving on the tongue has strengthened my belief. I certainly don’t believe I am in league with the Devil when I take communion on the hand. But I also don’t believe that Cardinal Sarah thinks I am or that he is suggesting I was less of a Christian when I communed this way. Rather, I think Cardinal Sarah is doing exactly what he is called to do as prefect of his congregation: help us deepen our love and understanding of Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist and respond to that presence by bringing Christ to the world.)
How can Ferrone so badly misunderstand and misrepresent what Cardinal Sarah says? Ultimately, the answer lies in the lens through which Ferrone views the cardinal’s words. Hers is apparently the lens of power and politics, not of faith and service. Her essay is suffused with language more appropriate to a political campaign than the context of faith. She accuses Sarah of “extreme rhetoric.” She says Sarah is “playing to his base.” He is a dilettante with a “mainstream post in a field about which he knows little.” In her short essay, Ferrone employs the term “mainstream” four times. According to Ferrone, Sarah is trafficking in “talking points” taken from the “reform-of-the-reform movement” which is “clearly shaping his agenda.” Sarah is “not serving the church.”
Naturally, if one views Cardinal Sarah as playing to a base, she is going to fail to apprehend what Sarah is saying. But anyone who has spent time with Sarah’s God or Nothing or The Power of Silence has spent time in the company of a spiritual master. This is a man of prayer, a priestly man, a man without guile. Cardinal Sarah is a man deeply in love with Jesus Christ. He is utterly convinced that Christ is the answer to every question of the human heart. For Sarah, the Devil is not a metaphor but a reality who prowls around the world seeking the ruin of souls, attempting to divide us from Christ, our Lord and Savior. If this is the lens through which you view the world, you will want to do everything in your power to help men and women grow in their knowledge, love, and reverence of Jesus Christ. Cardinal Sarah wants each of us to be able to say with Saint Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Kneeling as humble pilgrims when we receive Him might be a good way to start.