The Impoverishment of Liturgical Culture

On his flight back from the Holy Land recently, Pope Francis made it clear to the journalists he was addressing that he dislikes the discussion, and press coverage, of the prospects for the forthcoming synod on the family being focused mainly on the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried. What he wanted instead, he is supposed to have said, was a “holistic” (ghastly word, the use of which here can I hope be blamed on the translator of his remarks), a “holistic” and “global” reflection on the family itself.

The trouble is, however, that precisely what focused everyone’s attention on this controversial matter were the remarks with which Cardinal Walter Kasper introduced the consistory last February, remarks which Pope Francis said he thought theologically “profound,” and about which he made all kinds of other obliging remarks, an intervention which made it sound as though the Pope must have been agreeing with Kasper’s well-known support for Communion for the remarried.

Kasper’s remarks, of course, have triggered massive and high-powered opposition from a good number of the Church’s theological heavyweights, led by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Cardinal Prefect of the CDF (whose views on the matter had been supported on an earlier occasion by Pope Francis).

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It seems to me that one major problem facing the divorced and remarried is the fact that the automatic reception of Holy Communion, at absolutely every single Mass one attends has become such a normal and ingrained part of post-conciliar Catholic life that if one doesn’t receive Holy Communion, it makes one feel abnormal—like a Protestant guest, not a full part of the Eucharistic community—even though on Sundays and other Holy Days of Obligation, the obligation on the faithful is not to receive Holy Communion, but to be present at the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, or as it used to be described, to hear Mass.

The fact that for most of the Church’s history frequent reception was not the normal practice may bear a little reflection. To begin with, it is surely the case that automatic reception of Holy Communion is in itself undesirable: it was supposed to be part of the heightened sense of “participation” in the celebration that post-conciliar liturgists went on about: what it has actually led to in practice is a huge loss of reverence for the sacraments in general (the growth of automatic reception was mirrored at every stage by a corresponding decline in recourse to sacramental confession), and in a loss of reverence for the sacrament of the altar in particular.

The Council of Trent did not prescribe any particular frequency for the reception of Holy Communion. Then it was established that Communion should be received at least once a year. Only in the twentieth century, with the teaching of Pius X, were the faithful encouraged to receive Holy Communion frequently, even daily. But there were conditions. The faithful should not receive Holy Communion out of habit. Above all they must be sure they were free from grave sin and had the intention of sinning no more. And the faithful prayed, in the words of the prayer for grace in the Old Mass, “Perceptio Corporis tui, Domine Jesu Christe, quod ego indignus sumere præsumo, non mihi proveniat in judicium et condemnationem: sed pro tua pietate prosit mihi ad tutamentum mentis et corporis, et ad medelam percipiendam” (Let not the partaking of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I, though unworthy, presume to receive, turn to my judgment and condemnation; but through Thy mercy may it be unto me a safeguard and a healing remedy both of soul and body), words which echo St Paul, “Let each one recognize the body of the Lord and not eat and drink his condemnation by receiving it unworthily” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

So one did not in Pius X’s time think of anything like today’s general invitation to receive Holy Communion, especially since the rules for Eucharistic fasting were much more restrictive than they are today. In many cases, indeed, communion was distributed only during the first Sunday morning Mass.

That is not all. There has also been a general impoverishment, even suppression, of the popular forms of piety which nourished the people’s reverence for the liturgy, especially Eucharistic adoration and the widespread recitation of the rosary. There has been a general liturgical impoverishment of ecclesial life. So what else, if the remarried cannot receive the sacrament, is there left in the Church for them to be part of? You can at least see why they might ask the question.

I am not, I discover, by any means alone in wondering whether this general liturgical impoverishment is relevant to this particular controversial question. Mgr Martin Grichting, vicar general of the diocese of Chur, in Switzerland, has responded to the current controversy by asking, indeed, precisely whether, “The upcoming synod, and in particular the question of the divorced who have ‘remarried’ in a civil ceremony, could be an opportunity for new reflection on the conditions that make sacramental communion fruitful and on the frequency of receiving this sacrament.”

“Today,” he goes on, “sacramental communion is seen as an obligatory part of the rite of the Mass, like making the sign of the cross with holy water or the exchange of the sign of peace”:

So what is needed for those “remarried” in a civil ceremony—but not only them—is a change of mentality. If the conditions mentioned by Pope Pius X for approaching sacramental communion were still applied in pastoral practice, the question concerning sacramental communion for those ‘remarried’ in a civil ceremony would be situated in a broader context more favourable to them. These faithful would no longer be the only black sheep discriminated against, since of course there is not only the sixth commandment but also the rest of the ten….

Without a doubt, the Eucharist is ‘the fount and apex of the whole Christian life’ (Lumen Gentium, 11). But the thinning out of the forms that prepare for and lead to this apex accentuates the difficult situation of those who, for whatever reason, are unable to approach this fount of Christian life because the personal conditions of their lives do not permit them to do so.

These reflections demonstrate that the debate over the ‘remarried’ faithful cannot lead to any useful result if it continues to be restricted to the question of whether or not they may receive communion.

The renewal of the Church’s liturgical culture was one of the great works in progress of the pontificate of Pope Benedict. It has not thus far been one of Pope Francis’s priorities: perhaps it would be good if the recovery of this priority were to become one of the themes of the forthcoming Synod.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared July 3, 2014 in Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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