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Recovering the Communal Nature of the Holy Sacrifice

In my earlier article “Holy Mass: You Cannot Do Anything to Glorify God More,” I explained that the Mass is not the offering of Christ as if in isolation from us; it is also the offering of the members of Christ united to Him in faith and love. In other words, it is, as St. Augustine would say, “the whole Christ” — head and members, the Church with her Lord — that is offered to the Father as a sweet-smelling oblation. The Mass is a sacrifice of my soul and body, your soul and body, and the totality of the faithful, united with the sacrifice of the High Priest offered under the appearances of bread and wine.

These traditional truths, much discussed by the Church Fathers and medieval scholastics, form the basis for a correct understanding of the social nature of the Mass, a truth that recent months have brought home to us in strange and surprising ways. Yes, without a doubt, Holy Mass is essentially a vertical act of theocentric adoration and divine sacrifice. Yet included within this act is the horizontal dimension: the communion of Catholics with the Lord and with one another. We find this truth frequently presented in the notes of daily missals produced in the first half of the twentieth century, such as my favorite, the St. Andrew’s Daily Missal of 1948.

How this profound truth has been obscured

In the second half of the twentieth century, the right order of understanding the Mass suffered a devastating inversion. The Mass as a meal to which “all are welcome” and a socializing opportunity was placed first; the social nature of the Mass as beautifully expressed by St. Augustine, St. Dionysius, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Council of Trent was reinterpreted — or rather, dumbed down — in a sociological, horizontal, secular-democratic way, so the liturgy was reduced at best to a Protestant congregational assembly, at worst to a mere social event, the ecclesiastical equivalent of bingo or bowling. When Chief Justice Roberts in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision compared churchgoing to “secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances,” Catholics of a Novus Ordo mentality would be hard pressed to disagree.

With a horizontalized view of Mass, the necessity of going up to receive Communion logically follows: if we are here together for a meal, why not eat it? It would be rude to sit at a parish picnic and not eat while your neighbors are tucking in.

What is ontologically first — namely, that Christ is offered at the hands of the priest as the one and only right and pleasing worship to God; that the Mass is a propitiatory and impetratory sacrifice by which our sins are pardoned and we obtain God’s blessings; that we assist first and foremost by joining ourselves in faith and love to the adoration of the Lamb (that is, our adoration of the Lamb, as well as His adoration directed to the eternal Godhead on our behalf) — has been forgotten, so the meal and the quasi-obligation to partake of it rush in to fill the vacuum.

Are there solutions to this inversion of proper order, which not only has visited catastrophe on the spiritual life of Catholics in the past half-century, but also, right now, seems to be driving a plethora of desacralizing policies for the celebration of Mass in Coronatide? Of course. Tradition always holds the answers to whatever crisis faces us, and all true reforms in the history of the Church involve the restoration of tradition where it has been abandoned or forgotten.

Two solutions: the TLM and Adoration

First, and quite simply, there is the traditional Latin Mass, in which the priority of the Sacrifice of the Cross is unambiguously presented, with emphasis placed on the offering of worship to God for His own sake. The TLM makes it clear that our partaking of Communion is an entering into something directed to God and overflowing to us, in order to lift us up to God as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, united with Him in soul and body. The Tridentine Mass is the ultimate boot camp, lifelong school, and watered garden for all of the interior and exterior acts that make up the practice of the Christian faith [i].

The traditional rites of the other six sacraments, the Roman Breviary, the Rituale Romanum — all thoroughly and movingly express this ancient Catholic theology, which we inherit from, among others, Augustine, Dionysius, Aquinas, and Trent. It is not possible to miss it if we enter into the liturgy conscientiously, with the aid of daily missals, pious customs and devotions, classic spiritual literature, and the old catechisms. To use an almost Amazonian metaphor, all of this together makes up a mighty ecosystem of worship, one that has been endangered but will never become extinct for as long as the Church remains on Earth, because the same Holy Spirit that raised it up over the ages will not allow it to vanish without a trace, especially when it is most needed.

Second, the renewal of Eucharistic adoration outside Mass is a powerful sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in our times. Pope Benedict wrote of the period immediately following the Second Vatican Council:

A few even considered Eucharistic adoration itself to be obsolete, saying that the Lord ought only to be received in the Eucharistic bread and not adored. But it is not possible to eat this bread like any other food. The Lord in the Sacrament of the Eucharist calls us to “receive” him in all of the dimensions of our existence. [ii]

Explaining why this devotion is so important in rebuilding the Church’s liturgical life and the prayer life of individuals, the same pope said:

There is an intrinsic connection between celebration and adoration. The holy Mass, in fact, is in itself the Church’s greatest act of adoration: “No one eats this food,” St. Augustine writes, “if he has not first worshipped it” (Commentary on Psalm 98:9). Adoration outside of holy Mass prolongs and intensifies what happens in the liturgical celebration and renders a true and profound reception of Christ possible. [iii]

On another occasion, Benedict XVI went farther:

Eucharistic adoration is an essential way of being with the Lord[.] … In one of his parables the Lord speaks of a treasure hidden in the field; the man who finds it sells all he has in order to buy that field, because the hidden treasure is more valuable than anything else. The hidden treasure, the good greater than any other good, is the Kingdom of God — it is Jesus himself, the Kingdom in person. In the sacred Host, he is present, the true treasure, always waiting for us. Only by adoring this presence do we learn how to receive him properly — we learn the reality of communion, we learn the Eucharistic celebration from the inside[.] … Let us love being with the Lord! [iv]

“To love being with the Lord”: this phrase is a perfect encapsulation of what is required of us before we go to Communion.

To love being with the Lord, we first believe the Eucharist is the Lord; then we respond with devotion, an appropriate holy fear and reverence; we desire to be one with Him, renouncing whatever obstacles could prevent or impede that union. One of the Psalms says: “Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it” (Ps. 80:11). Eucharistic adoration calls us to open wide the eyes of our faith; it opens wide the mouth of our desire, and readies us to be filled with the immensity of God Himself. It is a guaranteed path for making our participation in Mass, and our entire lives, more fruitful in every way [v]. When we look at things in this manner, we realize that it is better to be deprived for a time of Eucharistic Communion than to denigrate the glorious ontological and social meaning of the Mass by succumbing to the pressure to manipulate it as a talisman of utility, as we see in far too many episcopal and diocesan policies at this time.

St. Peter in his first Epistle lays out the essence of the Christian life: “Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). The common Christian vocation is always to offer oneself — all that one has, and all that one is — to God, to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. The Sacrifice of the Altar is the center from which the power and reality of this baptismal priestly self-sacrifice originate.

[i] In contrast — and it pains me to have to say it — the Novus Ordo works against these acts and virtues and attitudes. You can actually become worse, morally and spiritually, by attending it repeatedly. Of course, the ars celebrandi of the traditional Mass itself needs to be sound and correct in order to facilitate these things: words spoken clara voce must be comprehensible; there should be no unseemly rushing (and that includes the servers’ responses); gestures should be made deliberately and clearly (not like “swatting flies,” as an elderly Franciscan once contemptuously described the many signs of the cross in the Canon — bearing witness, perhaps, to bad practice he had once known or had even been guilty of); and so forth. We must not fall into the same bad habits that provoked, or at least gave excuse for, the putative cure of the liturgical reform.

[ii] “Il messaggio di Benedetto XVI ai funerali del card. Meisner,” Fondazione Vaticana Joseph Ratzinger-Benedetto XVI, 11 July 2017,

[iii] Angelus, June 10, 2007.

[iv] In a homily at Vespers in Altötting, September 11, 2006.

[v] Nota bene: I am not saying that Eucharistic adoration is a solution or substitute for bad liturgy, bad youth ministry, or bad catechetical formation. It cannot solve those problems; indeed, it can sometimes be abused by those who do not understand the proper ceremonial for exposition and the spirit of reverence that should be cultivated around the monstrance. However, adoration is the God-given and time-tested way to grow in Eucharistic faith, devotion, and hunger, to battle indifference and utilitarianism, rationalism and populism.

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