In the following section of this article, Emily Sparks offers the following eyewitness testimony, with permission to use it, under her name. Looking back many years later, she regrets her well intentioned involvement in this panoply of abuses but wishes to share with readers a sense of “just how bad it is” at a typical Catholic parish in the USA. There is every reason to believe that elements of her description continue to be applicable to many parishes today.
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While many are aware of the Eucharistic abuses that take place during a typical parish liturgy, many are unaware of the frequent behind-the-scenes abuses that are the consequence of current liturgical practice. When I was still a teenager, I was employed by my parish as a sacristan and assisted (as instructed) for the preparation of Sunday Masses. The account below summarizes my experiences during this time.
My former parish is a typical parish; in fact, it might be slightly better than average. The tabernacle is in the center of the sanctuary, and there were confessions offered several days a week. The priests were well-meaning and not avant-garde or intentionally revolutionary.
There were four Masses every Sunday, the first at 7:30 and the last starting at noon. My job was to arrive before the end of the 7:30, and make sure the vessels were purified if necessary, cleaned, refilled, and set up for the next Mass. I would do this after each Mass until the noon Mass was over. I believe that this job was originally handled by lay volunteers, but the parish hired me because having one regular person to do it made for better and more reliable results.
“At each Sunday Mass, the parish had four ciboria for Holy Communion, and either two or four chalices: two for the 7:30 and noon, and then four for the prime-time Masses at 9:00 and 10:30. The priest who said Mass always distributed Holy Communion. Though the parish had two or three deacons, they would help distribute Communion only when it was their Sunday to preach, which was once a month on a rotating basis. So, on Sundays, each Mass had between five and seven extraordinary ministers distributing Holy Communion. Once a month you can subtract one from that number for a deacon.
“When the vessels were brought back, the priest’s chalice and paten were almost always purified (though occasionally they weren’t), but the ciboria and chalices for the faithful almost never were. Each Sunday, at least one ciborium, and often more, was sent back with a generous coating of consecrated crumbs on the bottom. I knew I didn’t have permission to consume the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass, so I would rinse the vessels in the sacrarium sink before washing in the regular sink. I would bring the vessels back to the sacristy after Mass. I could not tell which were purified and which were not until I started to wash them, since the ciboria had lids, so I would bring them all back together. This often resulted in the particles of the Sacred Species being left alone in the sacristy while I gathered up everything needed for Mass, before starting to clean them.
The pewter chalices that were used for the faithful’s Holy Communion were customarily purified partly by the extraordinary minister, and then completely by me in the sacristy. The extraordinary ministers would consume the extra Precious Blood, add a swallow of water and drink it, and leave the cups in the back, where I would do a more thorough job at the sacrarium sink. In a large parish, it is very difficult to estimate the correct amount of wine needed, and sometimes there was more than needed. I remember once an extraordinary minister asking for assistance from others in the sacristy, because she was on antibiotics and could not finish what was left. Another time I remember walking into the sacristy to find an extraordinary minister pouring the Precious Blood directly into the sacrarium sink. Additionally, on a few occasions I came to the sacristy to find the extraordinary ministers rinsing the chalice into the wrong sink, the regular sink instead of the sacrarium.
A few times, a chalice more than half-full of Precious Blood was brought back and just left there unconsumed. It was very difficult for me to know what to do in this situation, because I was not given permission to consume the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass, so I did not do it. Instead, I would try to dilute the Sacred Species so that it was no longer wine before pouring it down the sacrarium sink. Looking back, I realize I probably should have attempted to consume it anyway, but I was acting on the instructions I had been given at the time. I hope I diluted it enough so that it was no longer the species of wine, but I was unsure as to how much water would be needed for that, so I made my best effort.
“Sometimes a ciborium would be left in the sacristy full of hosts, with no explanation as to whether they were unconsecrated (because they weren’t needed) or consecrated and brought back by accident. On those occasions I had to enlist a priest’s help about what to do. The solution was usually to bring them back out into the church to be consecrated at the next Mass, “just in case.”
The priest was greeting people in between Masses, so this job in the sacristy was overseen by me and the extraordinary ministers. For this reason I had to open the tabernacle before each Mass to see how many ciboria were consecrated already, and then open each ciborium, making sure they were more than half full. If more than one was half full or less, I combined the Hosts into one ciborium and took the empty ciboria back to the sacristy to purify in the sacrarium sink. I did this multiple times each Sunday.
I was not the only layman who would open the tabernacle regularly. Other extraordinary ministers would do so as well. I remember once approaching the tabernacle for my job, only to find my way was blocked by two men who were in the sanctuary having a conversation about golf, right in front of the tabernacle. I had to ask them to please take their conversation somewhere else.
When I was attending Mass in the pews, I remember two times seeing someone walk away with Holy Communion. One time it was a young woman who took Communion in her hand but did not consume it. I saw it, and motioned to her to consume it, which she did as she was heading back to her pew. I approached her after Mass, and she told me she was not Catholic, but her grandmother told her to go to Communion anyway, so she did. She simply walked off with the Host because she didn’t feel right about receiving. Later that year, I saw a teenage boy, who was wearing a t-shirt for the heavy metal “Lamb of God” band, take Holy Communion back to his pew in his hands, where he was fiddling with it in full view of his parents. When I told the pastor about these desecrations, there was no measure taken to address them.
People reading this might assume that the sort of things I’m describing are problems that were limited to my parish. While I have no doubt that these sorts of abuses are rare at the few “Reform of the Reform” Novus Ordo churches where priests are trying to make the Novus Ordo closer to the practice of the traditional Mass, I do think problems like these are common in parishes that are of average quality — which would be most of them. Based on what I have seen and experienced, I think there are two reasons for this.
The priests who ran my parish meant well. They weren’t trying to be revolutionary or lazy; they were just doing what they thought was appropriate. But the conclusion is inescapable: the understanding of the priest’s role as guardian and caretaker of the Holy Mysteries has been completely eradicated in the Novus Ordo liturgy and its surrounding culture. Practicing Catholics know that only priests can say the words of consecration, but any sort of exclusive duties regarding the Blessed Sacrament end there. And how can a priest even begin to reclaim this? The moment he were to try to stop something even as egregious as Communion in the hand, he would be crucified by most of his congregation and probably by his own bishop. If a priest cannot take measures to prevent highly visible abuses from occurring during Mass, then it will be even harder to stop the sacrileges that occur “behind the scenes,” about which few people are even aware.
The second point is one of practical logistics. If a parish is going to use several extraordinary ministers, and as many as ten vessels each Mass (four ciboria, four chalices, plus the priest’s chalice and paten), it is very hard for the priest to do an effective purification of everything at the altar, or to keep track of the several extraordinary ministers. Purified and unpurified vessels get mixed in the shuffle, or the priest runs out of time or water. Extraordinary ministers can take things to the wrong place or go to the sacristy at the wrong time. (For example, one of the reasons why full consecrated chalices would be left unconsumed in the sacristy was because an extraordinary minister didn’t show, due to illness or a scheduling error or something like that. No one realized one was missing until after the Consecration.) With so many people and variables at play, human error is going to happen — and, over time, it will happen on a large scale.
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Another friend — this time, a seminarian — shared with me the following transcript of an actual conversation that took place at dinner one night:
Parishioner: After the funeral last week, someone found a host on the ground. Sue came up to me and told me about it. I asked her what she did with it. She said it was in her pocket. I asked her to give it to me, so I took it and ate it. She said, “Sally, that was on the ground.” But I didn’t know what else I should do with it.
Priest: There’s another way to handle that. In the sacristy, there are two sinks. In one of them, the pipe goes straight into the ground. You just crumble up the host and put it in there. It’ll go in the ground, not in the sewer.
Parishioner: Oh, okay. I didn’t know. Thank you.
(No comment from three other parishioners present, including a fourth year in the permanent diaconate program.)
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A correspondent wrote to me about something he heard at a parish council meeting (this is not, alas, a parody from A-CNN):
At the last meeting, someone suggested asking people in the congregation to give up beer for Lent and to provide the funds that go towards beer to the Church instead. Nothing wrong with that. But then they suggested actually taking a 6-pack of beer and putting it up on the altar or ambo as a prop during the tithing appeal. Aren’t they aware that children would ask, “Daddy, why are they doing that?” Aren’t they aware that the altar is sacred, and the ambo’s supposed to be sacred, too? What’s worse, the pastor said he thought it was a great idea — to which the person who had brought it up replied, “Oh, it’s not my own idea, I got it from a pastor of the town where I used to live.”
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These heart-rending accounts — and, I am sure, they could be multiplied by the thousands — read like so many warnings from Old Testament prophets telling Israel to repent or face utter destruction. A Church that continues to act this way is a Church that has signed its own spiritual death warrant.
Such desecrations and sacrileges take place week after week after week. And we are busying ourselves with regulations about hand sanitizer and the handshake of bonhomie? The bishops dare to tell people they must receive in the hand and cannot receive on the tongue?
All of this is nothing more than instrumentalizing Our Lord. We are making the way we treat His all-holy, all-precious Eucharistic Body dependent on our narrow health interests rather than looking to what is fitting for handling and consuming the Bread of Angels. If a virus makes the fitting distribution of the host impossible, so be it: let the priest alone sacramentally communicate while the people make a spiritual communion. This shows that we believe and we revere the holy mysteries. But for God’s sake (literally), let us stop abusing the Lord for our own interests, let us stop subordinating Him to our worldly notions, and let us stop the pandemic of Eucharistic sacrilege that has swallowed up the Western Church and made it a kingdom of wrath in the sight of our God.
“Wherefore, as I live, says the Lord, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things, and with all your abominations, therefore will I also diminish you; neither shall my eye spare, and I also will have no pity” (Ez. 5:11).
St. Paul says — look in your Bible if you don’t believe me — that many of the Christians of Corinth are sick and weak, and some have died, because of their Eucharistic irreverence (1 Cor. 11:27–32). Today, the Catholic Church is Corinth, and irreverence is her sickness unto death.
A priest or deacon who comes to understand what is wrong with modern Eucharistic praxis and then does nothing to correct it, even at the cost of his position or his very life, will stand condemned before the awesome tribunal of Christ, whose sacred presence in the Holy Eucharist he has held in contempt. “Whatever ye shall do to the least, that ye do unto Me” — this is no less true of the particles and drops of His divine, immortal, life-giving mysteries as it is of His people. Indeed, if we have any faith left at all, we shall see that this saying is most of all true of His Eucharistic presence, since it is the Lord Himself. “I have brought up children, and exalted them: but they have despised me” (Is 1:2).
In spite of the fact that the Church’s faith is spelled out clearly in 2,000 years’ worth of catechisms, sermons, spiritual writings, codes of law, and liturgical rubrics, it may be possible that many priests, due to poor catechesis and formation, do not even hold the Catholic faith in the Real Presence in every particle and drop of the sacred species, or in the essential distinction between ordained and non-ordained ministers (and the responsibilities that come with it), or in the primacy of the worship of God over horizontal social relationships. Are seminarians taught that even particles of the hosts or drops in the chalice are still the Most Blessed Sacrament? Certainly most of the laity seem to be altogether unaware of this. If that is true, it does not excuse us, but renders the judgment all the heavier, since the baptized are required before God to know the fundamentals of their religion, and the Eucharist is at the heart of Catholicism.
The wisdom of the Roman Church’s traditional practices — always limiting communion to one species, having the host distributed only by ordained ministers and only on the tongue to faithful who are kneeling (making the sign of adoration without which, says St. Augustine, we commit sin), and having the priest thoroughly cleanse the few vessels in use before the Mass ends — has never been so dazzlingly clear, and yet never so unappreciated or despised. Will the Bride of Christ on Earth respond with humble repentance and zealous reform? Or will the lament of the prophet Jeremiah continue to resound? “As a woman that despiseth her lover, so hath the house of Israel despised me, saith the Lord” (Jer. 3:20).
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria; the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program; and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism, writing regularly for OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, and other websites and print publications. He has published eight books, the most recent being John Henry Newman on Worship, Reverence, and Ritual (Os Justi Press, 2019). Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.