Obedience as a Conduit of Grace

Have you ever attended a Mass where people who seemed unaware of what the Mass was about walked up to receive Communion?  A while ago my husband Tom and I attended a Mass for a wedding like that.  One couldn’t help but notice, by the lack of responses and the chatting away, that most of the folks at the Mass were either not Catholic or had fallen away from regularly going to Mass.  They seemed to have no way of knowing when to pray, to sit, to stand or to kneel.

I was thus flabbergasted at this wedding Mass when many of these folks walked up to receive our Lord in Holy Communion.  Redemptionis Sacramentum (RS), Rome’s document on liturgical abuse, said the following about pastoral correction of this particular abuse:

“[I]t sometimes happens that Christ’s faithful approach the altar as a group indiscriminately.  It pertains to the Pastors prudently and firmly to correct such an abuse” (RS 83)

“Furthermore when Holy Mass is celebrated for a large crowd… care should be taken lest out of ignorance non-Catholics or even non-Christians come forward for Holy Communion, without taking into account the Church’s Magisterium in matters pertaining to doctrine and discipline.  It is the duty of Pastors at an opportune moment to inform those present of the authenticity and the discipline that are strictly to be observed”  (RS 84).

But RS also stated that “everyone” (not just priests and religious) had to do what was in their power to correct abuse, and described this as a “serious duty.”   And sometimes, when it comes to liturgical abuse, it is precisely this duty that gets me feeling queasy:

“[L]et everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected.  This is a most serious duty incumbent upon each and everyone, and all are bound to carry it out without favoritism”  (RS 183, emp. mine).

The problem with directives from Rome on liturgical abuse is that so often these directives are treated like a communicable disease.  We don’t like to go near them, let alone think about or embrace them.  There are times I think the word “infinite” was invented to describe the number of excuses we Catholics can conjure up for not doing the often simple things that God, through Rome, asks us to do for our own good.

As I made my way up to Communion at the nuptial Mass on that day, my thoughts weren’t holy.  What was running through my mind went something like this… Oh Father, I thank you that I am not like those who are receiving you so unworthily.  Why I thank you Father that I’m a real Catholic. My prayer was like that of the Pharisee in Luke 18 who prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector…”

Less than five days later, I found myself at an out-of-town Catholic funeral Mass.  Once again it was apparent I was attending Mass with a group of non-Catholics or fallen away Catholics.  But this situation at Communion was very different from what had happened at the wedding.  Just prior to Communion the priest celebrating the funeral Mass, clearly making note of who was in the pews, slowly stepped forward to make the following gentle announcement “For those of you who have properly prepared yourselves, we will be distributing Communion now.”   His slow and deliberate emphasis on the word “prepared” stopped me in my tracks.

“Prepared yourself?”  Had I “properly prepared” myself for Communion?  Yes, I went to confession regularly.  Yes, I was at Mass every Sunday.  Yes, I said my pre-Mass prayers… but did that mean I was “prepared” to receive our Lord with His full body, blood, soul and divinity?  Something about the way the priest said what he said made me gulp.  My prayer suddenly changed from that of the Pharisee to that of the tax collector in Luke 18 who stood at a distance, beat his breast and said “God have mercy on me, a sinner!

The words of the priest did more than sting my soul.  They obviously touched the non-practicing Catholics and non-Catholics in the pews.  Unlike the group in the pews at the wedding, many of those at the funeral Mass refrained from Communion.

After hesitating and vowing to do a better job of “preparing” myself in the future, I did eventually make my way up for Communion.  My prideful prayer of “thank you that I am not like these other sinners…” had been transformed to one of true thanksgiving.  Looking over this sea of sitting heads, I pondered “There but for the grace of God go I.”  How blessed I was to know and have the gift of the Eucharist in my life.  I offered my Communion for the soul of the deceased but I also said a quick prayer that one day each one of us would come to know and love the great gift of the Eucharist in our lives.

Once liturgical abuse has started, it is not an easy thing to stop.  It becomes like a bad habit.  And bad habits can be hard to break. “In some places the perpetration of liturgical abuse has become almost habitual…” (RS 3).  Rome has written volumes about liturgical abuse to wake us and shake us up.  On several occasions, Rome has also spoken.

On October 26, 2006, Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, spoke up again and “decried” liturgical abuse.  He reminded us that “the sacred liturgy is not a domain in which free exploration reigns…” He spoke out against “…the undo place given to spontaneity, or creativity, or perhaps a false idea of liberty…”

As a local church, do we really think we can find “unity” with one another while we proceed to separate ourselves from Rome and the Mass as Rome desires it be celebrated?  Without union with Rome, what kind of “unity” do we really have?  Can it truly be a unity that lasts?  Entire groups unwittingly causing scandal to the church by indiscrimately approaching Holy Communion is not new and doesn’t just happen at Masses for weddings and funerals.  It happens at Masses for Christmas and Easter as well.  Many of us know this first hand.   How and when did it become “normal” for entire groups to indiscriminately approach Holy Communion?  Did it begin with a desire not to “offend?”

By his simple but choice words, the humble priest at the funeral Mass offended no one.  He elevated the mystery of the Eucharist by gently reminding us that the Eucharist is not for anyone in any situation but only for those who have taken the proper steps to prepare themselves for it.  He touched the heart of at least one Catholic mother, made her thankful, and reminded her that this mystery, which we refer to as the “source and summit” of our lives, is so great that there isn’t one of us who cannot do more in the way of pre-Communion preparation.  Obedience naturally begets obedience.  Obedience also begets grace.  In his obedience to Rome, this priest became, albeit unwittingly, a conduit of grace for me and for others.

And that is precisely what priestly obedience to Rome does.  In a mystical way, priestly obedience creates an intangible but none-the-less real conduit of grace that unites us to Rome and to one another.   Priestly obedience sanctifies us all.

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