Friday, May 24, 2024

Bankrupting the Banquet: Reflections on the Distribution of Holy Communion

Among other things, the National Eucharistic Revival launched by the USCCB is an invitation to reflect on our treatment of the Holy Eucharist and the way it may influence our beliefs. Two decades ago the Reverend Massimo Salani made international news by accusing fast food of being Protestant. Characterizing the popular form of eating as the complete oblivion of food’s “sacred nature,” the Italian Patristics scholar went on to opine that fast food “reflects the individualistic relation between man and God introduced by Luther” and is thus “the fruit of a Protestant culture.”[1] While Salani’s theory won praise from the Italian Minister for Agricultural Resources, both the German Lutheran community and the McDonalds Corporation were quick to issue letters of rebuttal, almost as if both were equally insulted by association with the other.

Regardless of where one stands on the value of fast food, the topic raises a question about the relationship between dining and the Catholic sacramental life. Indeed, Fr. Salani could just as easily have asked not whether fast food is Protestant, but whether fast food is now, thanks to the way we currently administer Holy Communion, Catholic.
Specifically, while the rite of communion in the traditional Latin Mass (and in all other historic apostolic rites) takes on the form of a high banquet or feast, communion in the typical Novus Ordo Mass celebrated in the U.S. today generally resembles the experience of eating at a fast-food restaurant. I stress “today,” for it would be simplistic and misleading to lay blame on the 1969 Missal per se.[2] But we can at least suggest the following. Even when the communion rite of the traditional Latin Mass is celebrated poorly by a hasty priest, the form of it remains unmistakably that of a grand banquet. On the other hand, the more negotiable form of the Novus Ordo communion rite, together with the implementations of the USCCB and the guidance of some American liturgists, have clearly made possible a number of practices that more often than not sell our banqueting birthright for a bowl of McPottage.
At the Lamb’s High Feast
In a traditional Latin Mass, everything about the communion rite betokens participation in a great feast. Only the choicest vessels, made out of silver or gold, are used and only the finest linens. The atmosphere, even when there is only a single priest in somewhat of a hurry, is one of solemn leisure. The communicant stops, kneels, and waits. He is honored by the approach of the priest himself, not a lower minister and certainly not a fellow layman, just as diners at a fine restaurant are particularly honored when the chef comes out and visits their table (I apologize for the profane comparisons here and throughout, but they are necessary for the argument).
When the priest arrives, accompanied by his “waiter,” a formally-dressed acolyte, precious dishware (a gold paten) is placed under the communicant’s chin and he is treated to three things: a beautiful invocation directed specifically to him, “May the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep thy soul unto eternal life. Amen”; a mini-Benediction (for the priest makes the sign of the cross with the Host in his hand before distributing it); and the sacred Host itself. The prayer is particularly relevant to our discussion. The chef at a fine restaurant is likely to “pray” that his patrons obtain the intended effects of the fare he has served: hence he says something like, “Enjoy your meal.” The purpose of Holy Communion, on the other hand, is not pleasure for the body but bliss for the soul: hence the priest’s precise yet succinct prayer to each and every communicant.
The communicant then usually lingers for a little while in gratitude. In some parishes, kneelers even wait until everyone on their side of the aisle has received before rising and returning to their pews, both to prolong their adoration but also to show good manners in not rising from the table until everyone has finished.
Of particular importance throughout this ritual feasting is the communion rail. Its opponents depict it not only as a barrier between God and man but as an impediment to the Lord’s supper, for it keeps the congregation segregated from the altar, which in the great tradition has been understood as both the locus of sacrifice and a mensa, a table on which a meal is shared. Yet they overlook how the chancel rail, like the Byzantine iconostasis, is not a partition separating but a seam uniting heaven and earth, sacred and profane; and subsequently, it is more of a window than a wall. Moreover, the communion rail is a table, a banquet setting for the communion of God and His children in the congregation. Underscoring this function was the custom in some parishes of placing a fine white linen communion cloth—a tablecloth, if you will—on the chancel rail.
The Happy Meal
The ethos for Holy Communion at the average American Nouvs Ordo is noticeably different. The communion rail now gone and the striking descent of the priest from the high altar now ameliorated by architectural changes to the sanctuary and by the team of Eucharistic ministers diluting his distributive office, the communicants form a single file line from which they never fully escape. As they hasten forward (in my experience, the line usually moves quickly), they are advised to make some gesture of reverence as they approach the Blessed Sacrament as long as it is not the traditional genuflection—presumably because it might impede efficiency.[3] In the traditional communion rite, the line breaks as individual communicants find a place at the rail and then prepare for Holy Communion. In the most common current dispensation, by contrast, there is no local (and possibly no psychological) transition from reaching the head of the line to receiving the Eucharist.
All of this smacks of a fast-food arrangement, with its focus on speed and efficiency. Customers form single file lines either in the restaurant or in the drive thru, and their food is ready for them before they are seated.
Instead of receiving from a priest, chances are that the communicant will be receiving from an “extraordinary minister of Holy Communion,” often located at various points throughout the church (again to aid efficiency). As has been mentioned already, it is an honor to receive one’s fare from the chef himself (the “high priest,” as it were, of the dinner), but in a decent restaurant one can at least expect to be served by a duly-uniformed waiter. What one would not expect is to have diners from the next table suddenly stand up and serve you your food. Yet this is precisely what happens with lay Eucharistic ministers. They are not priests, they are not members of a minor order (acolyte), and they are not even laymen performing the function of a minor order (altar boys).[4] They are fellow diners who may or may not have taken a workshop on how to distribute God.
Instead of a precious vessel made out of gold or silver, the priest or Eucharistic minister may be holding in his or her hand cheap earthenware. From it he/she proffers a Host and says, “The Body of Christ.” This brief declarative statement, no longer than “Have a nice day,” replaces the beautiful prayer addressed to the individual for his eternal salvation as well as the mini-Benediction. Gone too are the gold patens and the communion cloth that add to the festive splendor and that reinforce belief in the Real Presence of every particle of the Host.
Although one is still permitted to receive on the tongue, it is more common for communicants to receive on the hand, a practice that further facilitates a fast-food mentality. Under this arrangement, it is easy to begin the return to one’s pew before the Host is actually in one’s mouth. Such an impatient action, should it occur (and it does), is roughly comparable to the fast-food customer who pops some fries into his mouth as he takes his tray and finds a table. McDonalds refers to the counter area where orders are picked up as the “grab and go” zone. The term is also a fitting description of Holy Communion at the average Novus Ordo parish. And should the communicant try to slow things down by kneeling down and receiving on the tongue, he may be denied Holy Communion. 
It is not difficult to see, incidentally, which of the two dining paradigms we have described better accords with the Eucharistic passages of the Bible. With the exception of the miracle of the fish and loaves (a picnic setting, so to speak, necessitated by the circumstances), scriptural foreshadowings of the Eucharist tend to involve grand or traditional feasts, such as the Wedding of Cana or the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Moreover, the Last Supper itself took place during no mere meal but the Seder, the highest and most solemn banquet of the Hebrew year, with every its dimension steeped in ritual and ceremony. Finally, the earthly liturgy that Christ instituted in the cenacle is itself a participation in His heavenly wedding feast described in the Book of Revelation. Since every Mass not only synthesizes all of the just sacrifices from Abel on but anticipates this great eschatological banquet in Heaven, it is fitting to have this hidden reality reflected in signs and gestures that are suitably august.
Reply to Objections
Two objections can be raised against our thesis, the first being that, despite the “grab and go” temptation, Communion in the hand as well as Communion standing up remain closer in form to that of a banquet. Few people at a feast, after all, are either spoon-fed by another or take their food on their knees. Yet this is precisely where the analogy—as all analogies eventually do—begins to fail. At an earthly banquet, an adult must indeed be somewhat active in taking food to his mouth. At the heavenly banquet, however, we are more like what St. Paul refers to as “little ones”—helpless infants seeking sustenance from our Parent. The gesture that a communicant takes in the traditional Roman rite is one of perfect receptivity (which is not to be confused with passivity).[5] He is like a fledgling chick, head tilted back, mouth open, pleading for Life.
The pelican, a type for the Eucharistic Christ, on a tabernacle door
This image may be mildly insulting to those who think of themselves as all grown up, but it is evocative of the gala logikos, the “rational milk” (or “milk of the Word”) that St. Peter admonishes us to receive as newborn babes (1 Pet. 2:2); and it hearkens to the ancient association of Christus passus with the mythical pelican. According to a Greek legend, a male pelican returned to the nest after a three-day absence to find his young killed by a serpent. To bring them back to life, he tore open his breast and let his blood trickle onto them. Church Fathers like St. Jerome saw in this tale an allegory of the Eucharist, which is why in Eucharistic hymns like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro Te, Devote, Jesus is addressed with the words, Pie Pelicane, and why tabernacle doors sometimes contain the relief of a pelican immolating itself. And if Jesus is the Pelican whose blood is life-giving Logos-milk, then we are certainly His newborn babes, smitten by the old serpent of sin and recumbent before Him.[6]
The pelican’s affinity with Our Lord also puts into perspective the inappropriateness of recent experiments in intinction, where the communicant takes the Host and then dunks it in the Precious Cup. This chips-’n’-dip motion of the layman is far removed from the practice of several Eastern rites, where the communicant receives both species (the Body intincted in the Blood) from the priest in a fledgling manner similar to that of the believer at a Tridentine Mass. And, of course, it gives the rite of communion an additional air of nonchalant informality, at least in cultures affected by the habits of Super Bowl Sunday snacking.
Second, it may be objected that Communion under both kinds is more banquet-like, since obviously banquets involve drink as well as food. As with Communion in the hand, there is an ancient Roman precedent for this practice, though likewise it is debatable that what we are doing today actually restores the tradition. Few proponents of the former, for example, seem to realize that the original practice, in some places at least, required a woman’s hands to be covered by a cloth when she received the Host.
The issue with Communion under both species is not so much that the Precious Blood is shared (which is theologically unproblematic and even in some respects commendable), but how it is shared. The answer to that question today is, again, fast-food-like. The communicant moves to a second station, almost always staffed by a lay Eucharistic minister, as if he were driving up to the second window of a drive thru. There he takes the Chalice in his hands (further undermining his fledgling orientation), imbibes his share, and goes. Having this second station can also undermine respect for the Eucharist, for invariably—in order not to hold up “traffic”—other communicants pass by the Chalice without acknowledging the presence of their Eucharistic Lord. And it hardly resembles the ancient practice, where only the deacon (the sous-chef of the Sacrifice, so to speak) took a golden straw called a fistula, lowered it in the Chalice, and put his finger over one end so that it would hold the Precious Blood. Then, moving to the communicant (not vice versa), he would suspend the fistula over the person’s open mouth and release his finger so that the Blood would empty into it, pelican-like.
two fistulae
Entitling this article “Bankrupting the Banquet” is not intended to be sensationalist or to suggest that when Mass is celebrated in a fast-food manner the Sacrament loses any of its efficacy. Both “bankrupt” and “banquet” come from bancus (the Latin for bench), the former in reference to a banker’s counter, the latter to a dining table. Keeping this etymology in mind sets into relief the content of our critique: by removing the communion rail and all the other elements of grand feasting, we have literally bankrupted the Roman rite, ruptured or broken the banquet bench on which the communion between God and man appropriately takes place.
Consequently, nature abhorring the vacuum that it does, an ethos of efficient consumption comparable to that of the American fast-food industry has crept into our solemn worship. The result is an atmosphere and an etiquette at odds not only with the sacrificial, regal, and divine character of the Eucharistic liturgy but with its festive, leisurely nature. Exorcizing the spirit of Burger King from the banquet of the Heavenly King remains an urgent and pastorally pressing task. If, as National Eucharistic Revival would suggest, the Church is serious about restoring a sense of reverence for the Eucharist, she may wish to reconsider how she distributes It.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Latin Mass magazine 16:3 (Summer 2007), pp. 38-41. Many thanks to the editors for allowing its publication here.
[1] From an interview that appeared in Avvenire, November 8, 2000. English translation from 2000 Religion News Service Star Telegram, Ft. Worth, Texas.
[2] Indeed, many of the features of a contemporary American Mass I am about to describe are not at all mandated by the 1969 Missal. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the new Missal and many post-conciliar directives either permit or insufficiently guard against the encroachment of “fast-food” practices in the liturgy.
[3] While the American adaptations to the General Instructions for the Roman Missal discourage kneeling or genuflecting during the reception of Communion (the bishops’ effort to forbid the practice outright was rejected by the Vatican), they do not state why these practices are now so objectionable. One respected liturgical scholar once suggested to me that the motive was purely logistical: kneeling and genuflecting interrupt the flow of the communion line.
[4] Even tonsured clerics were not permitted to distribute Holy Communion: only the major order of priest (for the Body) and the major order of deacon (for the Precious Blood) had such privileges.
[5] The Blessed Virgin Mary, for instance, was utterly receptive to the Angel Gabriel’s announcement, not utterly passive.
[6] The pelican metaphor also underscores the inappropriateness of Eucharistic ministers whose activity alienates the priest—acting in persona Pelicani, as it were—from the Divine Pelican’s blood and brood. For the pelican does not ask some other bird to revive his young after his act of self-sacrifice but carries the act through to its completion himself.

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