A friend of mine texted me last week to say that she’d found a nice church round the corner from her office and had just “popped in for a lunchtime Communion service”.
Which puzzled me, because this lady is a Catholic and the word we use is “Mass”. I associate “Communion service” with the Lowest reaches of the Church of England – vicars who “preside” from the “north end” of the “table” (ie sideways, to the left of the congregation, to avoid any Popish implication of sacrifice). Was this my friend’s way of letting me know that she’d swum the Tiber in the wrong direction? Or had she been listening to one of those continental Catholic prelates who think one wafer is as good as another? (I have with my own eyes seen a French bishop distribute Anglican hosts to an Anglican congregation. But I won’t name him in case someone reports him to Pope Francis and he gets promoted.)
As it turned out, the church was Catholic, and my friend had indeed been to a Eucharistic service led by a lay worshipper. I’d forgotten this was allowed, but now I thought about it I remembered that years ago my mother was arm-twisted into conducting one by a trendy PP. “It felt wrong,” she said.
Coincidentally, I read the next day about a Californian bishop who has banned these services in his diocese. As the Catholic Herald reported, Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa is citing a 2004 Instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW). This says that bishops “should not easily grant permission” for weekday Holy Communion services without a priest “especially in places where it was possible to have the celebration of Mass on the preceding or the following Sunday”. This ruling was being ignored so widely that Bishop Vasa lost patience.
Good for him. When was the last time a bishop risked upsetting lay Catholics by actually implementing a ruling from the CDW? I sometimes wonder why the Church bothers to run this Vatican dicastery, given how little control it exercises over the discipline of the sacraments.
Do you remember the time it ruled that Eucharistic Ministers, now re-named Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, should be used only when strictly necessary? I didn’t notice any drop in the numbers of lay people distributing the Sacrament. I can’t honestly say it bothered me. My mother was one of these ministers and said it deepened her faith. And, besides, shorter queues for Communion bring forward the end of Mass by a couple of minutes. That’s good news for Catholics like me who are cursed with a low boredom threshold and have a marked preference for the Second Eucharistic Prayer. You can guess why.
These Holy Communion services, on the other hand, sometimes carry unintended overtones of lay presidency at the Eucharist. Unintended, that is, by the Vatican, parish priests and most of the people who lead them. But not by everyone.
English Catholics often complain, not without reason, that their hierarchy is stolidly unimaginative. That’s not always a bad thing: it means we’re spared the chaotic liturgical experiments to which bishops turn a blind eye in Europe, the United States and Latin America. It’s true that priest-free Communion services are permitted by the Vatican. But could they be the thin end of the wedge?
Let me refer you to an article that appeared this April in the ultra-liberal American National Catholic Reporter. It’s by one Bill Mitchell, who belongs to a Catholic men’s group that meets at “the home of one of our members, a cosy but plenty big place on a pond at Cape Cod”.
These rustic but plush surroundings are the setting for a priest-free “liturgy” at which they troop into the kitchen – “a processional provided with liturgical oomph as Peter opened his mobile phone and played the ‘Glory Be’ he created by layering multiple recordings of his own voice”.
After a sign of peace consisting of “72 hugs”, these well-heeled gentlemen break bread and pass round a cup while Bob reads Chapter 22 of Luke – that is, words almost identical to the priest’s words before the elevation at Mass.
This scene is not beyond parody: it is a parody of the Mass, no less appalling because it’s ridiculous and the accompanying photo looks like it was taken from a Brooks Brothers ad for casual clothes for the older man. The headline? “A weekend at Cape Cod shows glimpses of a future church”.
That’s my fear, and why Bishop Vasa should be applauded. Ten years ago, one felt that Catholics were protected by the Magisterium. Now, not so much. How would the current successor of St Peter react to that mock-eucharist in the “cosy but plenty big place”? I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.
This article first appeared in the August 17 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here