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Reflections from a somewhat (but not completely) sidelined priest

This damnable health crisis should stand as a most salutary reminder that God is God, and we are not. God is still in charge.

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Lent of 2020 was scheduled to be one of my busiest Lenten seasons in years. Something “in the air” changed all that, however, the “down-time” has given me the opportunity to consider a number of practices and attitudes that the current crisis has brought to light.

Two liturgical “sacred cows” were curtailed very early on.

The first was the suspension of the “sign of peace.” Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I must declare that I have never been a fan of the sign of peace, finding it a terrible distraction at a most solemn juncture in the Sacred Liturgy. Hence, for decades I have never invited the congregation to “share with one another” the “pax” (that, of course, is completely within the discretion of the priest-celebrant to do – or not). It is interesting that, over the years, I have had some people (usually senior citizens) approach me after Mass in near apoplexy, “What happened to the sign of peace, Father? Did you forget? I really depend on that.” I have wondered at times if some of those same people would be as disturbed if I had omitted the consecration! To be clear: There is indeed a “horizontal” dimension to the Eucharist, however, the sign of peace (as generally done) reduces the liturgy to a social event, with a vapid handshake or goofy waving across pews. Perhaps its absence for weeks on end will give priests the insight that returning it may not be in the best interests of upholding a genuine sense of the sacred.

The second “sacred cow” was the withdrawal of reception of the Precious Blood directly from the chalice. The fact that that was highlighted for suspension is an indicator of what many of us asserted when the practice began, namely, that it is unsanitary. Its promoters claimed that the Center for Disease Control gave it a green light. The CDC did not say that; rather, it informed that the risk of contagion was not massive. If anyone ever looked into a chalice coming back to the altar after Holy Communion and beheld the spittle, he would have more than second thoughts about ever employing that form of Communion. Of course, that is one reason why – for a long time – priests and the so-called “Eucharistic ministers” were pouring the remains of the Sacred Contents down the sacrarium (against liturgical law). The first point to be made is that reception under both species is not necessary for a valid Communion. That said, once more, I want to be clear: I am not opposed to the reception of Holy Communion under both forms; it is a fuller “sign” of the Sacrament. I am only opposed to having the lay faithful receive directly from the chalice. What I have always done – since my very first Mass – was to distribute Holy Communion by intinction, the procedure by which the priest dips the Sacred Host into the Precious Blood and places it directly onto the tongue of the communicant. This is the method used by the other twenty-two rites of the Catholic Church, as well as by all the Eastern Orthodox churches. Intinction is also recommended in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal; priests ought to consider adopting that method once we are all operational again.

In some dioceses, the lay faithful have been told that they are forbidden to receive Holy Communion on the tongue – because of the danger of contagion. This is patently false on two scores. First, no one (including a bishop) can forbid what universal law not only permits but mandates (Communion in the hand is granted only by way of indult, which is a canonical versino of a grudging permission). Second, and just as importantly, medical experts are unanimous in judging that the danger of contagion is far greater by hand to hand communication than by hand to tongue (see the pastoral letter of the Archdiocese of Portland). Truth be told, the crisis is being used by not a few malevolent would-be liturgists to force a practice on the laity that they hope will pass into normal usage once the health crisis is over.

That said, we need to examine the recourse to Holy Communion which has become absolutely normative, that is, the presumption that attendance at Mass automatically calls for reception of the Holy Eucharist. Pope Pius X, in order to address the Jansenist heresy of one’s total unworthiness to receive Holy Communion, promoted more frequent reception of the Holy Sacrament. The Church, however, is generally not too good with the pendulum, so that for the past fifty or sixty years at least, that pendulum has swung in the exact opposite direction. While a Catholic has a grave moral obligation to assist at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, there is no obligation to receive Holy Communion every time. Indeed, the Church sets as a minimum requirement reception at least once during Paschaltide. Yet again, I am not calling for a return to the pre-Pius X era; I am, however, suggesting that there can be too much of a good thing, as the proverb would have it: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

In this most abnormal moment in the life of the Church, it would behoove serious Catholics to “offer up” their inability to have access to full Eucharistic Communion for various intentions: in atonement for one’s personal reception in times past while in a state of grave sin or even just in an unthinking, rote fashion; in solidarity with those brothers and sisters of ours who live in political situations where access to the sacraments is either impossible or dangerous; in fraternal communion with those who cannot (and do not) for various personal situations licitly receive the Sacrament (e.g., the divorced/remarried). The Church has reminded us (and mandated) a Eucharistic fast prior to reception of Holy Communion (roundly ignored). Might it not be worthwhile to use the present unavailability of the Sacrament to experience another kind of Eucharistic fast, that is, fasting from the Eucharist – done in a spirit of reparation for taking for granted so holy a Gift? This would also be a “teachable moment” for priests to instruct their people on the great value of the tradition of making a “spiritual communion.” Surely, this does not bring the graces of full Eucharistic Communion, but it does help one express one’s longing desire for that “Bread which gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33); Our Lord is truly pleased with the expression of such pious sentiments and will not be slow to confer His graces and blessing.

As dioceses have called for the suspension of public Masses (and other services), most bishops have been quick to encourage their priests to continue to celebrate Holy Mass – even though no congregation is present. This is most important, and the fact that some German liturgists have come out swinging against it should confirm the value of the encouragement for a variety of reasons.

First of all, it is a wholesome reminder that the most important thing the Church can do for the world (yes, even and especially) in a time of global crisis is to offer the Sacrifice of the Eternal Son to His Heavenly Father; in a particular way, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered for the needs of Christ’s Bride, the Church. This act underscores the utterly transcendent reason for the existence of the Church.

Secondly, offering Mass without a congregation present restores in a powerful manner the understanding of the cosmic nature of the Holy Sacrifice. In truth, you see, the priest-celebrant is not “alone” in his liturgical action; in the Preface of every Mass, he bids all the angels and saints to attend to the sacred action about to take place on the altar. Thus, the entire Communion of Saints is present: the Church on earth (in the person of the priest), the souls in Purgatory, and the whole Court of Heaven. Each and every celebration of the Eucharist brings together the Church synchronically (the Church at present throughout the world) and diachronically (the Church down the ages). In other words, the liturgical action is always greater than any particular gathering of Christ’s faithful.

Last but not least, the priest’s “private” celebration of the Sacred Mysteries stresses the priest’s primary role in the Church, that is, as the intercessor extraordinaire. In the post-Vatican II era, in all too many ways and places, the priest has been reduced (and all too often has reduced himself) to a mere functionary or “sacramental magician.” The fact that the priest can offer the most sublime act of worship to the Triune God without a visible assembly should bolster his self-understanding. Five thousand lay people (even the holiest in the world) can come together but cannot confect the Eucharist without one of Christ’s ordained ministers. This should never lead to a clericalistic attitude of superiority; on the contrary, it should create in a priest a profound sense of humility: “I, a mere man, can do what no one else can do – thanks to the grace and power given me by Christ ‘s Holy Spirit on the day of my priestly ordination.”

The last point I want to make was reinforced by the liturgical texts given us on this day on which I pen these thoughts, namely, Friday of the Third Week in Lent. The Entrance Antiphon had us acclaim: “You alone are God.” The Collect had us beseech the Almighty that we would “be constantly drawn away from unruly desires and obey by your own gift the heavenly teaching you give us.” Hosea, speaking for the Lord, uttered the challenge: “Israel, come back to the Lord your God; your iniquity was the cause of your downfall.”

Where am I going with this? This damnable health crisis should stand as a most salutary reminder that God is God, and we are not. God is still in charge. As the Sacred Scriptures remind us, “God is not mocked” (Gal 6:7). Just as this is a global disaster, so too has there been a nearly global turning from God and the things of God. The God of the First Covenant did not hesitate to show His might when His People strayed from the straight and narrow path. In the New Dispensation, all too many self-proclaimed believers have not only strayed but have actually deemed their straying of no account: “My God would never punish anyone.” However, the God revealed by Jesus, although almost unbelievably patient, nonetheless is not incapable of calling people to account for their misdeeds, causing Jesus to propose a rhetorical question: “Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?” (Lk 13:4). I have not heard many (or any) clergy – Catholic, Protestant or Jewish – suggest that this plague could be a divine wake-up call. Such a possibility should not be dismissed out of hand.

The “Ubermensch” of the modern era needs to engage in a sober assessment of our humanity, fragility and mortality. Despite all the advances of science and medicine (for which we should be most assuredly grateful), we must humbly admit that this most unexpected, unanticipated occurrence should bring us to our knees. Firstly, to acknowledge God’s dominion over His creation; secondly, to beseech our good and provident God to inspire doctors and scientists to come up with life-saving remedies (under His divine guidance) and equally to inspire everyone to learn some valuable lessons – both human and ecclesial.

In humility, then, we can make our own the wise words of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman:

. . . [God] has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 160 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

22 Comments

  1. “I have had some people (usually senior citizens) approach me after Mass in near apoplexy, “What happened to the sign of peace, Father? Did you forget? I really depend on that.””

    What a very sad thing; it sounds as if that one moment at Mass is the only time anybody is interacting with them.

    “That said, once more, I want to be clear: I am not opposed to the reception of Holy Communion under both forms; it is a fuller “sign” of the Sacrament.”

    With proper cathechesis, yes. But some years ago I had a discussion with several people who insisted that they *must* receive under both kinds because otherwise they would not be receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord.

    My priest reminds us periodically about the fact that one receives Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, under either kind.

    “those who cannot (and do not) for various personal situations licitly receive the Sacrament (e.g., the divorced/remarried). ”

    Surely that should be “divorced and remarried.” One can be divorced and still receive the Sacrament.

    “I have not heard many (or any) clergy – Catholic, Protestant or Jewish – suggest that this plague could be a divine wake-up call. Such a possibility should not be dismissed out of hand.”

    And if they did, you can bet there would be hysterical outbursts abounding: “How dare you! How dare you blame the victim! You’re evil and hateful! Your Church is silly and outdated and you are too! God would never ever punish anybody for anything! And anyway there is no God!”

  2. I wish we’d permanently retire the Sign of Peace from the liturgy and I find it terribly distracting. But I wonder if those older folks you mention were missing it because it might be one of the few physical contacts they encounter all week?
    Perhaps not. But I’ve read that many elderly go for long periods without the touch of another human being.
    We desperately need Christian fellowship but some of that is much more appropriate after Mass. Maybe after this current enforced isolation from each other we’ll figure that all out.

  3. priests and the so-called “Eucharistic ministers”(sic)

    That should read extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Redemptionis Sacramentum unambiguously explains that only a validly ordained Priest may be referred to as a Eucharistic Minister. Let’s not perpetuate the mistake – and in the process inflate the egos of those deputed members of the laity – by incorrectly referring, albeit in quotes, to the latter as the former.

    This is the method used by the other twenty-two rites of the Catholic Church,(sic)

    There are not 23 Rites in the Catholic Church. There are 24 Churches sui juris in 6 different Rites; the Latin, Alexandrian, Armenian, Byzantine, East Syriac and West Syriac.

  4. It is obvious why this priest is partially sidelined. The arrogance and pomposity in this article is intolerable.

    • “It is obvious why this priest is partially sidelined.”

      Rather funny remark considering that Fr. Stravinskas wrote, “Lent of 2020 was scheduled to be one of my busiest Lenten seasons in years,” with the obvious point being that the coronavirus outbreak—not “arrogance and pomposity” or dislike for his work—is what has partially sidelined him. Good grief.

      • We know it’s the corona virus, but after reading the article and getting a sense of the tone, one can’t help but think he’s very likely sidelined in other ways. There are good writers on this online journal, and then there are a few “know it alls” who have all the answers. A tone of humility is so important today. Bishop Barron is one who seems to have maintained such a tone, but there are others who have no self awareness. CWR editors needs to replace their filter with a new one.

        • A tone of humility like yours I suppose. I did not detect one word of pomposity or arrogance in Father’s article. Father S. has dedicated his life to serving the people of God, and I for one appreciated his reflections in this time.

          • Well let’s have a look:

            “over the years, I have had some people (usually senior citizens) approach me after Mass in near apoplexy, “What happened to the sign of peace, Father? Did you forget? I really depend on that.” I have wondered at times if some of those same people would be as disturbed if I had omitted the consecration!”

            What nerve! To assume that because a person values the sign of peace, he probably has no sense of the nature of the Mass.

            “…it would behoove serious Catholics to “offer up” their inability to have access to full Eucharistic Communion for various intentions: in atonement for one’s personal reception in times past while in a state of grave sin or even just in an unthinking, rote fashion;…”

            Astounding!

            “Might it not be worthwhile to use the present unavailability of the Sacrament to experience another kind of Eucharistic fast, that is, fasting from the Eucharist – done in a spirit of reparation for taking for granted so holy a Gift?”

            He really knows our hearts, doesn’t he?

            “This would also be a “teachable moment” for priests to instruct their people on the great value of the tradition of making a “spiritual communion.” Surely, this does not bring the graces of full Eucharistic Communion, but it does help one express one’s longing desire for that “Bread which gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33); Our Lord is truly pleased with the expression of such pious sentiments and will not be slow to confer His graces and blessing.”

            Must be something to be God’s special spokesperson, to know what really pleases God and when God will confer blessing and at what speed.

            “This is most important, and the fact that some German liturgists have come out swinging against it should confirm the value of the encouragement for a variety of reasons.”
            German liturgists. What they believe is the criterion for knowing what we should not believe.
            “Truth be told, the crisis is being used by not a few malevolent would-be liturgists to force a practice on the laity that they hope will pass into normal usage once the health crisis is over.”

            Malevolent would be liturgists. I wonder if they’re German.

            “…the priest’s “private” celebration of the Sacred Mysteries stresses the priest’s primary role in the Church, that is, as the intercessor extraordinaire.”

            Intercessor extraordinaire! Do you get a sense that Father Peter has an extraordinaire sense of self-importance?

            “In the post-Vatican II era, in all too many ways and places, the priest has been reduced (and all too often has reduced himself) to a mere functionary or “sacramental magician.”

            More denigrating of the laity. I have never in my life come across anyone who regards the priest as a mere functionary, much less a sacramental magician.

            “the fact that the priest can offer the most sublime act of worship to the Triune God without a visible assembly should bolster his self-understanding. Five thousand lay people (even the holiest in the world) can come together but cannot confect the Eucharist without one of Christ’s ordained ministers. This should never lead to a clericalistic attitude of superiority; on the contrary, it should create in a priest a profound sense of humility: “I, a mere man, can do what no one else can do – thanks to the grace and power given me by Christ ‘s Holy Spirit on the day of my priestly ordination.”

            Somehow I’m not convinced of his humility. The whole article reeks of clericalism, despite his words to the contrary.

            The basic point in this article is that he hopes this crisis will allow priests to reflect, wake up, and begin to see the priesthood, the liturgy, and how to conduct it, the way he does.

        • Mr. Thomas James, your presentation of Bishop Barron as a paragon of “humility” and “self-awareness” makes me wonder about your own awareness about what CATHOLIC humility and self-awareness REALLY ARE. I greatly respect Bishop Barron in the good he does and he must have some humility and some self-awareness because if not he would either be a criminal or in a mental hospital.

          Nevertheless, making him and example of those absolutely essential two Catholic virtues is an entirely different thing. With all the great good that indeed he does, Bishop Barron is way too naive about the REAL problems in the Church and the REAL, toxic, sinful infiltration inside the Church and especially at its highest levels. I can see how some Hybrid Catholics, lacking REAL, Catholic humility and REAL, Catholic self-awareness, would love to see all of us follow that beautiful happy parade down a cliff. By the way, New Age-style humility and self-awareness are just “happy” enablers and blind accomplices of evil.

          Father Stravinskas is a great Priest and no “proud, rigid arch-conservative” or anything so clearly implied in your comment. I invite you and all to read the sermons of the Cure De Ars, Father John Vianney, Holy Patron of Priests. He breathed and spoke Holy Fire, just like Jesus, and it was his humility and self-awareness made that Christ-likeness possible and that God used to convert so many (and so with all the REAL Saints). Impostor virtues always gently kiss our egos posterior, the true ones do NOT, they put fire under it! Otherwise, we would not REALLY be able to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

    • Thomas James, so you don’t agree that the sign of peace is disruptive and distracting at the most solemn part of the Mass? We have “Sunday Celebrations in the absence of a Priest” most Sundays at our church. We moved the sign of peace to the very end, which allows the people to greet anyone and everyone if they wish.

  5. My Bishop has banned communion on the tongue and I have taken the advice from some respected priests and made abstinence from Communion one of my Lenten Sacrifices, as I do not want to choose between Communion in the hand or going at loggerheads with my Bishop who (despite my disagreement on this particular subject) is acting with the good intention of stopping the spread of the Wuhan/Covid 19/Corona Virus.

    However, the sign of peace has also been suspended. I guess every mushroom cloud has a silver lining.

  6. The Trapp Family Singers had a saying: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” The present crisis has caused many Catholics feel to feel deprived of God’s presence and His grace. I have found that this is an excellent time to share our Carmelite charism of His divine indwelling. “It seems to me that I have found my Heaven on earth, since Heaven is God, and God is [in] my soul. The day I understood that, everything became clear to me. I would like to whisper this secret to those I love so they too might always cling to God through everything.” (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letter 107)

  7. Thank you Father, important food for thought and beautiful acclamations of truths. Sign of peace, terrible distraction to attentiveness to Christ’s loving invitation to receive his Flesh and Blood. Why can’t we have the peace-sign after the blessing? No mass and no communion is a suffering and longing that we can offer up in obedience to the will of God. I want to thank all the loving and faithful Priests who offer the divine sacrifice to the Eternal Father for the sake of the people, the church and the world.

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