Twenty years ago this week I was on retreat in France preparing for priestly ordination. I remember it as a time overflowing with gifts of grace. For that reason it has since always been my preferred time for retreat, especially if, as this year, the time includes the Feasts of Corpus Christi and the Nativity of John the Baptist. Both speak powerfully about priestly vocation.
For the Baptist, vocation is everything to do with God’s choice and prevenient grace and nothing of self-realisation. It is a divine call, but since we are not angels, it is mediated through a human context, through those things and people which give us life. It is in the womb than John leaps; from the womb he is called, according to the prophecy of Isaiah. Every embryonic vocation must be nurtured in God’s time within what is feminine and receptive: a mother’s love and example, a biological mother or the spiritual motherhood of the Church, and the womb of silence and prayer.
John’s prophetic ministry always directs towards the Word Incarnate, even pre-verbally as he leaps in his mother’s womb. For this reason he is the greatest and the last of the prophets, for all the Old Testament prophecy is directed towards readying hearts to recognise and receive the presence of the Lord in whom the Kingdom is already among us. Like John, it is the priest’s privileged task to cry out, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” literally to show him to others. In measure that he appreciates the wonder of Christ’s presence he “must diminish”, because all the joy and activity of his life derives from and is redirected towards this mystery of the Word among us.
The monastery of Solesmes keeps Corpus Christi on its proper day, Thursday. A beautiful Mass was followed by a procession out into the monastic garden’s lawns and parterres and avenues of lime trees. The route was decorated with petals in fleurs de lys, stars and dove motifs. It led to an altar in the trees for a Benediction, and then we returned to the abbey church as the monks sang the Te Deum. There was to be continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the next three days, and a second procession to conclude this.
I don’t want to sound churlish, but it was noticeable that we saw nothing resembling that darling of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Liturgical Assembly. Sweeping changes (which ushered in a terrifying collapse of sacramental practice) were justified by claims that hitherto the faithful didn’t understand what was happening and “just” prayed rosaries at the back of Mass. The reforms were to turn them into a consciously participating liturgical assembly.
I do not presume to judge their hearts, but at the processions I witnessed there was sadly very little sense of a people gathered in worship. In this respect the experience was by no means atypical of others I have witnessed, especially celebrations of First Holy Communion. In stark contrast with the past, it was all too apparent that the faithful had almost no idea how to participate. Many behaved as curious spectators, their first reaction to reach for their camera-phones.
People talked and laughed as they straggled aimlessly behind the clergy. The participation instinctive to previous generations – kneeling as the Blessed Sacrament passed by, kneeling for the Benediction or even just the simple act of keeping silence – was gone from the liturgical assembly, which appeared to fragment as soon as God, not the assembly itself, was the direct object of focus; when people had nothing else to do except kneel and silently adore the Lamb of God.