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Communion on the floor and the trinity of disorientation

When is the last time you heard music at Mass that reinforced your faith rather than tested it? When is the last time you heard the cosmos in your parish?

November 27, 2020 

Robert R. Reilly 

(Image: bykofoto | us.fotolia.com)

In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem asked of those receiving Communion:

Tell me, if anyone gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all care taking heed lest you should lose any of them and suffer loss? Would you not much more carefully be on your guard lest a crumb fall from you of what is more valuable than gold and precious stones?

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. At a recent Sunday Mass, the somber pastor at one of the churches I attend prefaced his sermon by announcing that a partially consumed Host had been found in the church. People like St. Dismas were martyred rather than letting the Blessed Sacrament be profaned. There is something terribly causal about Communion on the floor. It’s not even careless – because carelessness denotes at least some understanding of care.

Today, there appears to be little or no understanding of St. Cyril’s sermon or St. Dismas’ sacrifice. A recent Pew Research study found that only 28% of self-professed Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. How could that be? It turns out, according to the survey that, “Most Catholics who believe that the bread and wine are symbolic do not know that the church holds that transubstantiation occurs. Overall, 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the church.” (Emphases added) How’s that for catechesis? A C grade in this case stands for catastrophic.

This failure does help explain why almost everyone goes to Communion. Of course, that would make sense if the lines at the confessionals were as long as the Communion lines. But they aren’t. So, what is happening is mass participation in a symbolic, not a sacramental, representation. If you don’t like the taste of the symbol, there is no reason not discard it in a discreet way, the same as you would with any snack that doesn’t suit your palate. How has this indifference been engendered?

In 1998, Avery Cardinal Dulles said:

The celebration should elicit a sense of numinous awe in the presence of the holy, the totally other. God is remote, utterly transcendent, and we sinners are unworthy to stand in his presence. Liturgy is the principal bond between the earthly and the heavenly Church, a frail human participation in the glorious heavenly liturgy. In its official worship the Church achieves its prime purpose, to glorify God.

We are bodily creatures who need outward physical signs that this is really happening. There have to be signals of what is signified. If they’re not there, we may miss the meaning. Why aren’t they there? One answer is supplied by modern church architecture; another by modern church music; and a third by the liturgy – a trinity of disorientation. Which of these today would lead you to believe that you are in the presence of the divine? The acid test for any part of the liturgy, including the music, is this: Would a complete stranger observing it believe that what is taking place is the most important thing in these people’s lives? I cannot express how I have missed that sense of sanctity in the Mass with which I grew up, though I see it coming back in the Arlington Diocese in which I am so fortunate to live.

I am a man of the theatre. I was an actor in my early professional life, so I understand the stage. That is what infuriated me about the “new” liturgy of the 1970s. Any competent stage director could have told the liturgical innovators that it did not convey the presence of the sacred. This was so obvious that the conclusion occurred that they must not think the sacred was present. Many parishioners got the message, as they stopped believing in the Real Presence or abandoned Mass altogether. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that between 1970 and 2018, the rate of weekly Mass attendance fell from 54.9 percent to 21.1 percent. Have any bishops lost their jobs because of this? If not, why not?

Architecture teaches. Little needs to be said about the modern Pizza Hut-style churches, where we all sit in the round looking across at each other in one happy community. It’s all about us. Shouldn’t we be looking at the altar? Most traditional churches are in cruciform shape, but many have been disfigured. At the head of the crucifix is, or should be, the tabernacle – as Christ’s head was toward the top of the cross and He is the head of the church. But what happens when the tabernacle is moved to the side, as has been the case in almost all churches? It is no longer the crucified Christ we experience, but a decapitated one. The church’s center of gravity has been displaced, making a mess of what is being architecturally expressed.

All traditionally designed churches make the main altar the point of focus. It naturally draws our attention there. If Jesus is not there, where is He? At the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C., for instance, one must go on a tabernacle treasure hunt to find the Eucharist.

If Christ is moved to a side altar, exactly what position ought He to occupy in our lives? This is why people no longer genuflect in front of the main altar. It now receives a respectful bow of the head. But why? To what? Genuflecting at an angle to the side altar where the tabernacle resides is awkward. The bizarre choreography is even worse in one local parish where the tabernacle is to the left back side of the church. If you wish to genuflect, you have to twist yourself completely around after entering, and then twist yourself back again to proceed to a pew. When seated, the entire congregation has its back to Christ.

There is some progress, however. At St. Dominic’s Church in Washington, D.C., the tabernacle has been moved back to the main altar. It is a magnificent Gothic-inspired tabernacle that the pastor bought online from a warehouse in Belgium to which it has been consigned as a result of liturgical “renewal.” Now the German Gothic architecture of St. Dominic’s can do what it was designed to do – naturally focus all attention on the actual presence of Christ. The move returned coherence to the church.

Music at Mass is supposed to be a form of worship. So seldom is this the case that I assiduously seek out Masses at which there is no music. This was my experience at a local church’s Sunday Mass. The Kyrie began rather beautifully, but then the tempo picked up and the bongos kicked in. When I vociferously complain about this kind of thing to my wife and children, they respond by saying, “Just don’t pay attention.” However, my avocation as a music critic for some 35 years means I can’t not pay attention. Therefore I am caught in this interior struggle between my revulsion at the banality of the music and my need to immerse myself in the reality of the sacrifice of the Mass. Should inducing a spiritual crisis be the effect of liturgical music?

Does God deserve this music? It’s not for God. It’s for the congregation, which so frequently applauds after the performance. Applause in church is a dead giveaway of the loss of liturgical music’s purpose. I have never heard anyone applaud after Gregorian chant. Because of the sense of the sacred it conveys one naturally wouldn’t applaud. One of the blessings of the coronavirus crisis is that the choir and the bongo player have gone for the time being. Who knew that social distancing could be so aesthetically pleasing?

I know a parish music director who was brought back to the practice of his faith by the more traditional church music, including some of the Renaissance polyphonic masterpieces, the pastor had asked for. How many people have returned to the faith after experiencing the banality of the bongos? If you think I’m rough on this stuff, listen to the great Peter Kreeft:

But don’t even think of mentioning ‘contemporary Christian rock’ in the same breath; it’s an insult to rock as well as to Christianity, and it’s almost as painful as those spectacularly silly, sappy, sloppy, sentimental, shallow, stupid examples of emotional diarrhea called ‘praise choruses.’

It is unbelievably condescending to play this trash to congregations. It is a way of telling them that they’re incapable of appreciating anything better – like real beauty. The poor dears, especially the youth, couldn’t be reached without cloying sentimentality. Let’s all “feel” together. It is the liturgical equivalent of the Modern Romance paperback novels sold at grocery store checkout stands. There is no intimation in the emotional bathos of how vast a treasure is present.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” wrote:

A church which only makes use of utility music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. She too becomes ineffectual. For her mission is a far higher one. The church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved.

As St. Clement of Alexandria taught, Christ is the “New Song” of the universe. “[It] is this [New Song] that composed the entire creation into melodious order, and tuned into concert the discord of the elements, that the whole universe may be in harmony with it.” How is that for inclusive? That “New Song” is not played on bongo drums, as that would be exclusive – in the sense that it would exclude the transcendent, which cannot be reached by any bongo drums I have ever heard. No, the transcendent can only be pointed to or reached by the greatest art.

When is the last time you heard music at Mass that reinforced your faith rather than tested it? When is the last time you heard the cosmos in your parish?

The objection to this might be: What parish can afford Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or a Bruckner Mass? True enough, which is why I cherish my visits to the Brompton Oratory in London, where great musical liturgies are sung at each 11:00 a.m. Mass on Sunday (which also proves with what dignity and solemnity the Novus Ordo can be said). But one needn’t go to London or have extraordinary musical resources. One Sunday last year, when I was looking for a Mass during a trip to Sacramento, California, I quite by accident bumped into a beautiful Romanesque-style church: Sacred Heart. When the choir began singing, I was almost overwhelmed by the sense of the sacred that the music conveyed. It did not call attention to itself but directly contributed to making the transcendent perceptible. I am not exaggerating by saying that the church architecture (with the golden tabernacle under a vaulted canopy at the main altar), the solemnity of the liturgy, and the sublimity of the music combined to provide a foretaste of heaven – which is precisely what the Eucharist is. After Mass, I waited until the church emptied so I could approach the pastor and thank him from the bottom of my heart.

What if one does not have a choir? At my local parish in Virginia, one of the priests regularly chants parts of the Mass. When I thank him afterwards, he smiles and says, “And it’s free!” Gregorian chant is like sound with silence in it. Where there is no silence, there is no deep belief in the Real Presence. Gregorian chant is the sound of the sacred. When sung, a stillness ensues that places us in his Presence, or rather, I should say, lets us know we are in his Presence.

You don’t even have to be in church for this to happen. One of the first teaching jobs my friend Deal Hudson got was at a federal penitentiary. He played music of the late Renaissance composer Orlando de Lassus, Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter), for the prisoners. Some of them wept. I wonder if it was partially because they were so touched that he had not condescended to them, although I have no doubt that the exquisite music went straight to their hearts and moved them deeply. I think many parish music directors should spend time in prison not only for their crimes, but because they could learn some things from the prisoners about music. If they played the tripe in the slammer that they foist on their parishes, they wouldn’t get out alive.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the Eucharist:

Out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency. (Summa Theologiae, III, 82, 3)

What does this say about someone who would put it on the ground? What is worse – the hatred of Christ practiced in a black Mass, or the indifference expressed by a partially consumed Host? As Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “The devil believes much more than many of us.”

(Editor’s note: The quote from Cardinal Ratzinger was originally and erroneously attributed to Cardinal Dulles.)

About Robert R. Reilly 10 ArticlesRobert R. Reilly was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006) for the US Secretary of Defense, after which he taught at National Defense University. He was the director of the Voice of America (2001-2002) and served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985). A graduate of Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University, his books include The Closing of the Muslim MindMaking Gay Okay, and Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. His new book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, is forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Mary Anne says:

    Very beautiful descriptions of sacred music … the writer has perceived it just as it is supposed to be. It is quiet within the beautiful sounds of the music conveying a sense of heaven. And so much more as he describes a prisoner weeping at the sounds. It is said that beauty touches the soul without words or reasoning.

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