An interview with His Excellency Athanasius Schneider ORC, auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan and titular of Celerina.
Bishop Schneider is a noted author and speaker. His best known work is Dominus Est – It is the Lord! – a defense of the traditional discipline of receiving communion.This is a translation of an interview, first published in Polish after his recent visit to Poznan, Poland, and it first appeared in Polonia Christiana magazine. The interview was by Izabella Parowicz. What I find particularly interesting is his description of growing up in the former Soviet Union when, at some periods, there was no possiblity of attending Mass at all. He describes how the profound reverence for Our Lord he saw in his family members and for the Blessed Sacrament during adoration was transmitted to him and others around him. Ironically, irreverence in the Mass came to the former Soviet Union from missionary priests from the West once there was relaxation of political control. He talks, for example, of how even when the Novus Ordo was introduced in Kazakhstan, it was celebrated as a matter of course in Latin and ad orientem and with such reverence that it was not noticeably different to the celebration of the Extraordinary Form (as it is referred to now). I should mention that Izabella did the translation and asked me to correct any grammatical errors (Polish is her first language). I was reluctant to make too many changes for fear of inadvertently changing precise meanings, but did do so on some occasions neverthe less. So please be aware, that if there appears to be any confusing terminology or error, it is almost certainly due to my misunderstanding and ignorance!
Here is the interview (the photographs were taken at a Pontifical Mass celebrated by Bishop Schneider in Poznan):
Izabella Parowicz: Your Excellency is ethnically German but you were born and raised in the then Soviet Union. How has this come about?
Bishop Athanasius Schneider: In the beginning of the 19th century (1809-1810) there was a great emigration of farmers from southwest Germany to the Black Sea region in the former Russian Empire. They emigrated from the regions such as Baden, Elsass, Lothringen, Pfalz. The Tsar granted to them gratis plots of very fertile land (“chernozem”, black earth). They were permitted to establish exclusively German speaking villages, and were separated also by their religious confession (pure Catholic and Lutheran villages) with German names, such as Strassburg, Elsass, Karlsruhe, Baden, Mannheim, Speyer etc. My ancestors emigrated from Alsace, near the town Seltz and Hagenau. They lived there until the Second World War. After the war the Stalinist regime deported them to several places in the Soviet Union for internment under hard labour. So my parents were deported to the Ural Mountains. After they were freed, they moved to central Asia, Kirghizstan, where I was born.
Your Excellency’s childhood must have been affected by the omnipresent persecutions of the Faith imposed by the Soviet regime. Under what conditions was it possible for Your Excellency and His family to practice their Faith? How did Your Excellency’s religious life develop and who played the most important role in it?
The communist regime had the aim to establish a society without God. So every public religious sign of worship was forbidden. The faith was lived and handed on in the families, thanks to the Catholic family as domestic church. I had the great privilege and happiness to be born in a very Catholic family, and I received the Catholic faith, so to speak, with my mother’s milk. During the persecution and in the absence of a priest (which sometimes took some years), my parents celebrated and sanctified each Sunday with the children by
As a teenager, in the 1970s, Your Excellency was allowed to return to Germany together with your family. Finally it became possible to practice the Faith freely. What were Your Excellency’s first experiences in this regard? We are talking about the times in which many of the unfortunate, post- conciliar liturgical reforms had already been implemented.
We, who lived the Catholic faith during the persecution, were thinking about Germany and the Western world like a “paradise”. In the persecuted church we lived a profound faith with a great reverence towards all sacred realities, the priest, the liturgy and especially Holy Communion. What shocked us so deeply now was the lack of reverence and sacredness in the liturgy of the Holy Mass. We observed for the first time in our life the unbelievable scene of the distribution of the Holy Communion on hand. It seemed to us so banal and so common - like the distribution of cakes. As we returned at home, we felt a silent pain in our souls. When my mother found that this was the situation in almost all other churches we visited, she suffered so deeply that she cried.
Your Excellency frequently emphasises that Holy Communion should be received in the mouth and in the kneeling position. What are the gravest risks and consequences of the widespread practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand (both in objective terms as well as for the faith of an individual)?
The gravest risk and consequence of the practice of Communion on hand is the enormous loss of the Eucharistic fragments and the consequently the fact that these fragments are trampled under the feet of the people in our churches. The next serious risk is the great risk it creates for the stealing the sacred host. Clearly also this practice weakens the Faith because when the Holiest of Holies is treated like common food and without appropriate gestures of adoration, it undermines the conviction of the truth of the Real Presence and in the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
Some Catholics who support (or simply are used to) receiving Holy Communion in the hand make the following arguments: they argue that a person’s hand tends to sin less than his mouth; they say that holding Our Lord in their hands gives them a beautiful opportunity to adore Him for a while; they also argue that kneeling would be against their human dignity and that the standing position is more appropriate and equally respectful. How would Your Excellency respond to these arguments?
The organs of our body (hand, tongue etc.) are not guilty of the sin. The guilt is imputed to the human person. The organs used by the human person to commit a sin, remain always innocent. That lay people may hold the sacred Host in one’s hand in order to adore the Lord contradicts the entire tradition of the universal Church. This practice is a subjectivist, though pious, exaggeration. The right to touch the sacramental Body of Christ the Church was always reserved to the ordained ministers. Exceptions were made during the time of persecution or in the case of a very grave necessity for objective reasons, but not in order to satisfy individual piety. Even during the first centuries, the Blessed Sacrament was not touched by the lay people with their fingers, but they took the sacred host directly with their mouth from the palm of their hand, and the women would cover their hands with a white cloth. The standing position does have value at certain times. It is a typical Christian position, because the Christian is a person who is redeemed and lives a new life and believes in the resurrection of the body. But the kneeling position is a typical Christian position as well, and is used in the moments and acts of adoration of God, of Christ, the Incarnate God. It is used also to express the prayers of petition, penance and contrition. Our Lord Himself prayed kneeling, so also the Apostles, the women in the Easter morning of the Resurrection. The kneeling gesture is shown in the Heavenly Jerusalem, where the Angels and the redeemed mankind prostrate themselves on their knees and even on their face to adore Christ, the Lamb of God. Therefore the most biblical, the most appropriate and logical gesture is the kneeling position in the moment when the faithful greets and receives the Lamb of God under the veil of bread.
We say we believe in God yet we do not know how to revere Him appropriately; we do it in our own, frequently lamentable ways. What may be the reasons for the diminishing of reverence shown to Jesus Christ Our Lord? What pastoral and catechetical solutions would Your Excellency recommend to restore this reverence?
Although the possibility of receiving Holy Communion in the hand was introduced in Poland in 2005, it is still, thanks be to God, not really widespread. There are, however, other sad novelties being introduced: the seat of the celebrant is being placed centrally between the altar and the Tabernacle (so that, while seated, he is showing his back to Our Lord), altar boys, when passing from one side of the presbytery to the other, bow reverently (but rather unreflectively) towards the empty altar table while having the Sanctissimum, the King of Kings, right behind them. We also observe a phenomenon of a “fraternization” of the faithful, especially youth, with Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ. This “fraternization” is accompanied by a trivialisation and infantilization of the way we worship God and it is often approved, if not promoted, by priests. When approached on these matters, parish priests usually plead newest liturgical or pastoral instructions as an excuse and generally, they do not wish to discuss such issues with the “troublesome” faithful. What arguments should we use to convince our shepherds that lex orandi does affect our lex credendi? Are we as laypeople at all entitled to admonish our priests (in the way that Our Lord Jesus commanded in the Gospel) whenever reverence towards Our Lord is at stake?
The supernatural knowledge of the truth of the faith about the greatness of the Eucharistic mystery has to grow firstly in the clergy. Also the laws of the authentic Christian and Catholic worship have to be better known according to the immutable Tradition and the perennial teaching of the Magisterium (“perennis sensus ecclesiae”). The fundamental law of the Divine worship is this: God, Christ, the eternity is the center and all aspects and details of the worship have continuously be subordinated and be directed to Him (so spoke the II Vatican Council in “Sacrosanctum Concilium”, 2). When the celebrating priest puts his chair in the center, he visibly stresses that in the liturgy man is in the center. This contradicts the teaching of the Church, especially the teaching of Vatican II already referred to. When instead the tabernacle and the Cross with the image of Christ remains in the center, with the chair of the priest on the side, this expresses the truth the Christ is the president, the leader and the head of each Eucharistic liturgy. Christ is the Head of His Mystical Body, and therefore Christ is also the Head of His “liturgical body”. Since Christ is incarnated and liturgy is sacramental, the truth that Christ is the center and the Head has to be also visible, that is: His Real Presence in the Tabernacle and His visible image on the Cross have to be in the center of the church and of the Eucharistic liturgy. The Second Vatican Council and Canon Law encourages the lay people to express to the clergy their concerns about the spiritual good of the church (cf. II Vatican Council “Lumen gentium”, 37; can. 212 and can. 213 CIC). Therefore each lay person has the right to ask the clergy to correct scandals and abuses which contradict the spiritual good of the souls and the rights of God Himself. The Church gives to the faithful such a right: “Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff” (“Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 184”).
Blessed John Paul II said in the year 1980 that “to touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hand is a privilege of the ordained”. What is Your Excellency’s opinion of the lay ministers distributing Holy Communion? Although (at least in Poland) they are usually carefully selected, respected men, husbands and fathers, their ambiguous, growing role is somewhat disturbing.
The fact that lay people distribute the Holy Communion during the Eucharistic Sacrifice contradicts the entire tradition of the universal Church (East and West) and was never practiced. It is an absolute “novum” and a
In Your beautiful book on Holy Communion entitled “Dominus Est”, Your Excellency described the role of the “Eucharistic women” in the Soviet Underground who, in the absence of priests, managed to preserve the flame of Faith by adoring Our Blessed Lord in the Eucharist so as to be able to receive Him at least spiritually. Your Excellency described a moving story of your mother, Maria Schneider, who was, exceptionally, allowed by a priest in hiding to administer Holy Communion to her sick mother, on condition that she would do it with greatest possible respect. Your Excellency’s mother put on new white gloves and with tweezers gave Holy Communion to her mother. Eventually she burned the envelope in which the consecrated Host had been kept. This is a description of women acting with profound respect and in extraordinary circumstances; in contrast, nowadays there is certain confusion with regard to the increasing involvement of women in all areas of the liturgical service (whether as altar girls, ministers of Holy Communion or even “pastoral assistants”). What should be the limits of such female activity and what arguments should be used to discourage women from getting involved in the altar service?
I would like to touch upon the hygienic aspect of receiving Holy Communion in the mouth. I find it simply impossible that any disease might be spread through Our Lord Who is substantially present in the consecrated Host and, to my knowledge, the Church has never in history been accused of causing or spreading any epidemics. Nevertheless, there was recently a case that the receiving of Holy Communion in the mouth was temporarily banned and distribution of Holy Communion in the hand was instead introduced by a national Conference of Bishops due to the fear of swine flu. As one could expect, this has resulted in a drastic diminishing of the respect for the Blessed Sacrament and even after the ban was lifted, almost no one in that country has been receiving Holy Communion in the mouth ever since in view of the “hygienic concerns” which sadly seem to outweigh the belief in the Real Presence. I would like to ask Your Excellency if such instances of epidemics should be at all considered valid reasons for introducing distribution of Holy Communion in the hand? Would an episcopal recommendation for making a Spiritual Communion be a viable alternative for such situations of epidemics?
Indeed in the two thousand years of Christian liturgy it was not heard, that through the Holy Communion there were transmitted deceases and epidemics. It is demonstrated that the palm of the hand contains more bacteria than the tongue. Everybody uses the saliva to make the first disinfection on a wound, but will never use the fingers of the hand for this purpose. The hand of a person who receives Holy Communion in the hand has usually previously touched many objects which are full of bacteria and dirt: the door-handles in the public places and in the church, but especially coins and paper money. With such unwashed fingers these persons touch the sacred host, leaving upon it the imprints of a huge quantity of bacteria which is then placed in their own mouth. Indeed it is Communion in the hand that is unhygienic. When a diocesan authority has sincerely “hygienic concerns” he has firstly to forbid the Communion on hand. In some rare cases of a dangerous epidemic a recommendation for making spiritual Communion would be a viable alternative. We have indeed to rediscover and esteem the fruitful practice of spiritual Communion.
My next question concerns the possible ways of avoiding the risk of sacrilege during Holy Masses which are celebrated for large crowds and which may be (partly) frequented by people who are not baptised Catholics (or not even Christians), who came for a Holy Mass out of curiosity and who, however, do not refrain from receiving Holy Communion. While the practice of distributing Holy Communion in the mouth as requested by our beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and maintained by our Holy Father Francis seems to be a natural “filter” which can prevent non- Catholics from receiving it, what other means could be implemented by priests in situations in which the risk of committing a sacrilege is too high?
The Church from the beginning of her historical journey always protected the Holiest of Holies, the “sanctissimum”, the Body of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrament, according to the admonition of the Lord: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine” (Mt 7:6). In the Eucharistic liturgy during the first centuries after the liturgy of the word all catechumens and all unbaptized were dismissed. The deacon proclaimed: “Catechumen go away. That no catechumen may remain”. These words the Byzantine Liturgy uses still nowadays. The Church had a special liturgical service that of the “porter” (ostiarius), who vigilantly had to watch that no unbaptized would receive Holy Communion and no person with bad intentions would disturb or profane the liturgy and the sacred place. It is a real pastoral demand to restore universally in the Church the order and the service of such a porter. In the Byzantine Liturgy the person who receives Holy Communion has to say his name, has to identify himself to the priest who distributed Holy Communion. This manner makes the rite of Holy Communion more personal, giving an atmosphere of a family and in the same time provides more security against profanations. This could be also adopted by the Church of the Latin Rite.
The Church law is very clear: no priest or bishop has the right to refuse to the faithful Holy Communion only because the of wish to receive it kneeling and on the tongue. This right of the faithful is laid down in the Instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum”, n. 91. The violation of this norm the Church considers as “grave matter”: see the mentioned Instruction, n. 173. The Church admonishes the sacred ministers with these grave words: “Let each one of the sacred ministers ask himself, even with severity, whether he has respected the rights of the lay members of Christ’s faithful, who confidently entrust themselves and their children to him, relying on him to fulfill for the faithful those sacred functions that the Church intends to carry out in celebrating the sacred Liturgy at Christ’s command. For each one should always remember that he is a servant of the Sacred Liturgy” (“Redemptionis Sacramentum”, n. 186). To refuse a faithful Holy Communion only because of a wish to receive it kneeling or on the tongue, constitutes an unbearable clericalism and clerical despotism.
For about 15 years Your Excellency has been performing His priestly and episcopal ministry in Kazakhstan. For many dozens of years the faithful in the former Soviet Union had not been allowed to hear Holy Mass, they had been deprived of priests and sacraments. The missionary priests who went there in 1990s must have naturally introduced Novus Ordo Missae and a number of new, formerly unknown liturgical or pastoral practices which were as such less reverent towards the Sanctissimum. What was the reception of these novelties by those Catholics who still remembered the old Mass and whose religious formation was much more traditional?
The Novus Ordo had already been introduced into the former Soviet Union in the early 1970s. But it was celebrated with the spirit of the Vetus Ordo, with deep faith and reverence. In my own parish, to which I belonged from 1969-1973 in Tartu/Estonia, the Holy Mass was celebrated according to the Novus Ordo, but “versus Deum” at the High Altar, in Latin, Communion on the Communion Rails kneeling and on the tongue. So for my parents and me there was almost no perceptible difference between the two “ordo”. The celebration “versus populum” was introduced in Kazakhstan still in the time of Soviet Union, but the manner of celebration was very reverent. It was introduced out of devout obedience towards the indications of the Holy See. After the downfall and disintegration of Soviet Union there came many missionary priests from different countries. Some of these priests introduced liturgical practices which are not according to the life of devotion of the faithful inherited from the time of persecution. Such practices were for example receiving Holy Communion standing, the use of guitars and clapping hands during Holy Mass, sentimental songs and songs with worldly melodies during the liturgy. But thanks be to God the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of Kazakhstan established the norm, that the only admitted manner to receive Holy Communion is kneeling and on the tongue, except in the case of persons who physically are impeded to kneel.
How would Your Excellency describe the faith of His flock? Are they still more reverent towards the Sanctissimum than the Western Catholics or was their piety too much affected by the state atheism?
The Catholics in Kazakhstan conserved the precious heritage from the times of persecution, it means: a deep faith; great reverence towards the liturgy and especially towards the Holy Eucharist; a clear conscience of sin, therefore the faithful receive frequently the sacrament of penance; a great love for prayer and especially for Eucharistic adoration; love and reverence towards the priests and the bishops; a general clear sense and reverence of the sacred.
The Eastern churches, either Catholic or Orthodox, conserved still a great reverence towards the liturgical tradition. To change the liturgy means for them to change the faith. They are profoundly rooted in the fidelity to the faith and to the liturgical tradition. The liturgy is something that they consider a sacred treasure, which the Church has carefully to conserve and to hand over to the following generations. Such an attitude of the Eastern, and of the Orthodox churches is a value which can and should enrich the Latin Church in these days of a great doctrinal and liturgical crisis. This is my experience from my contacts with the clergy and the faithful of the Orthodox church. To learn and to accept the liturgical spirit and fidelity of the Orthodox churches would be one of the best ecumenical gestures on the part of the Catholics.
We can never show enough reverence for our Blessed Lord. How can we train ourselves in continuously improving it? Could Your Excellency offer us some practical advice in this regard?
First we have to know better the fullness of the Catholic faith about the Eucharist, especially the very rich documents of the Magisterium. Then it will be also helpful to read the lives and examples of the Eucharistic Saints and Martyrs. Then we have to express our faith with clear gestures of reverence, adoration and devotion towards the Eucharistic Lord. The practice of Eucharistic adoration is spiritually fruitful. We have to promote the Eucharistic adoration there, where we live and even establish groups or fraternities of Eucharistic adorers. We have also to console Our Lord because of the enormous and numerous acts of sacrilege and irreverence and offer in the spirit of penance through the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Eucharistic Woman, acts of expiation and reparation according to the example of the Angel, who appeared to the children of Fatima.
In conclusion, I would like to ask what is Your Excellency’s definition of a saintly priest?
A saintly priest is that priest who is conscience of what he is, objectively and ontologically: “alter Christus”, and who tries with the grace of God to become each day more “alter Christus” also in his mind, his intentions, his words and deeds according to the spirit and the example of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, the good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the eternal salvation of the immortal human souls, who does not seek his own profit, but entirely the glory of God and the spiritual good of the souls. And the greatest help in this process is then, when he every day celebrates with deeper faith and deeper love the sacrifice of the Holy Mass.
+ Athanasius Schneider, Titular Bishop of Celerina and Auxiliary Bishop of the archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan 01.08.2013