Pastor Iuventus

What we haven’t learned from John XXIII

Since the 16th century the Church has assigned different devotions to different months. Most Catholics still know that May is dedicated to Our Lady, October to the holy rosary and November to the Holy Souls. Perhaps less well known is that July is traditionally devoted to the Precious Blood. There used to be a feast of the Precious Blood on July 1, established by Pope Pius IX in 1849.

Does it matter? I think in an age and in a country where Holy Communion under both kinds is routinely administered it matters greatly, and we need to promote greater devotion to the Precious Blood.

My own pastoral experience leads me to the heartsore conclusion that, due to inadequate catechesis, the practice of routinely administering Holy Communion under both kinds may paradoxically weaken devotion to the Precious Blood. I hear huge numbers of the faithful refer to receiving “the wine” at Communion. During the swine flu scare a few years ago I found pinned to the doors of a Jesuit church posters explaining that, for reasons of health, “There will be no wine available at Communion” for the next few months.

This hardly constitutes the “worship of latria” owed to the sacramental reality of Christ’s Blood, referred to by Pope John XXIII in his 1960 apostolic letter Inde a Primis. To say so is not a judgment on those responsible (with the possible exception of the clergy at the aforementioned church who really should know better). But it ought to give rise to concern and action. St John XXIII’s exhortation was, in part, the fruit of his own great devotion to the Precious Blood. He urges the faithful to cultivate the same devotion, explaining that worship of the Blood of the new and eternal covenant “achieves its normal fulfilment united with Christ’s Eucharistic body”. Therefore “the faithful can make the sentiments of the priest their own: ‘I will take the chalice of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord’.” All this, though they only receive under one kind.

The General Instruction of the latest edition of the Roman Missal implies that the Council of Trent rejected calls for Communion under both kinds because of the historical context: “a difficult period when Catholic faith in the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the ministerial priesthood, and the real and permanent presence of Christ under the Eucharistic species were placed at risk”.

It is at least debatable as to whether some of the aforementioned difficulties apply today, but the General Instruction goes on to explain the circumstances which make the administering of the chalice possible: “No one today calls into doubt in any way the doctrinal principles on the complete efficacy of Eucharistic Communion under the species of bread alone.” Again, I am afraid that my pastoral experience over the past 18 years often contradicts that statement.

Indeed, it could be argued that the widespread introduction of Communion under both kinds at every Mass – not something mandated or envisaged by the Second Vatican Council – has created the very problem which negates its desirability, the danger which Trent identified in the practice of the reformers. That is, the risk that, without systematic and rigorous catechetical formation preceding it, once you have habituated people to receiving from the chalice at every Mass, you also habituate them to the idea that they do not fully receive Communion if they don’t. It’s a pastoral conundrum as to how you can affirm the doctrinal principle of the complete efficacy of Communion under one kind only by always administering it under two.

My own experience forces me to question whether Communion under both kinds always leads to a “new appreciation” of the sign-value of receiving the Precious Blood separately. The sign-value of an altar covered in liturgical hardware – jugs of wine or chalices on butlers’ trays – speaks more to me of catering than of sacrifice.

I speak under correction. This is just opinion, but motivated by a desire for the Church’s good. Christ’s Blood is the efficacious sign of his unlimited love poured out for us. As St John XXIII says: “Such surpassing love suggests, nay demands, that everyone reborn in the torrents of that Blood adore it with grateful love.”

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London