Life & Soul

The hardest thing about my last 20 years as a priest

Communion in the hand (Getty Images)

In the days before there were memes, Evangelical churches used to display catchy posters on their noticeboards. They included “Ch —ch. What’s missing? UR” and “If it were illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Of course, it was once illegal in England to believe that Jesus Christ is really present body, blood, soul and divinity under the signs of bread and wine.

You would be hard-pressed to convict anyone today on the evidence of the way our liturgy is celebrated in most places. People are discouraged from genuflecting to the tabernacle or kneeling to receive Holy Communion. In some cases, they are humiliated for receiving on the tongue. Priests affirm that God is perfectly delighted that people talk rather than pray in church before and after Mass. The habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in contravention of the norms, to the point where they have become a kind of quasi-hierarchical order in the Church, has hardly helped encourage faith in the Real Presence. This is particularly so when they are so inadequately formed that they explain their role as “giving out the wine” at Mass.

I would say that the hardest thing about the last 20 years as a priest has been to see the lack of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. I have found an echo of so many things that have distressed me in Cardinal Sarah’s book, The Power of Silence. He writes powerfully about the loss of the sense of transcendence and the need to recover the sense of the sacred. He renews his call for a return to the celebration of Mass ad orientem (facing east), and for the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue.

This is not nostalgia. It is a pastor’s reaction to seeing the terrifying collapse of faith in the West. These liturgical gestures are important not because they are old, but because they express an attitude towards the majesty of God which has been lost.

Cardinal Sarah says that when we go to Mass we should be overwhelmed by the transcendent holiness of God. This transcendence is not there to intimidate us, but to raise us by our contemplation of it. God’s transcendence, he says, is an appeal to that of Man. If you are mistaken in your understanding of the mystery of God, you will misunderstand human nature, for they are inextricably bound together.

On the subject of facing east, the cardinal points out that the common objection that the priest has his “back to the people” already presupposes that the people are the object of the liturgical action. It is in fact supposed to be God whom one finds on the other side of the altar, rather than the priest, according to Romano Guardini, whom Cardinal Sarah quotes. The altar is a threshold which one approaches. “Our” side of the altar is the place where the human realm finishes, and on the other side is the realm of the eternal. The altar should represent the otherness of God, who dwells in the heights and is far removed from us, whom we can approach so far and not farther, like Moses before the burning bush.

The cardinal suggests that the innovation of an altar facing close to the people is a denial of God’s transcendence, for if there is no distance between Man and God symbolically and theologically, then by definition He is not transcendent.

The liturgical arguments will rumble on. But the theological and pastoral case seems very clear.