In their laudable desire to resist and overcome the goofiness of recent decades, sometimes traditionalists will adopt opinions that go too far in the opposite direction, thus missing the Catholic truth. I don’t mean this in the sense of an abstract via media, because there are times when the extreme is the truth. I mean it as a matter of Aristotelian common sense: about almost any question, it is possible to exaggerate or overshoot in one direction or the other.
For example, reacting against decades of coercive participation in worthless ditties led by calisthenic cantors roosting at the lectern, a traditionalist might argue that the congregation’s role is to sit still and listen, leaving all the singing of the responses and Mass Ordinary to the choir alone. Or, tired of hearing about “breaking bread at the table of plenty,” he might assert that “the Mass is just a sacrifice — not a meal!” — and that “saying otherwise is Protestant.” Or he may be tempted to say: “The Mass is a vertical act of divine worship aimed at God; it’s not a social activity or a communal gathering. All this ‘assembly’ stuff is Protestant.”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the mind cannot hold any opinion unless it has some likeness to the truth. People take up an extreme position because it contains a truth that has been ignored, denied, even mocked for decades. For it is eminently true that participation in the liturgy is not belting out “Gather Us In” (or its yet to be written counterpart “Get Us Out of Here”). The Mass is a true and proper sacrifice: this much the Council of Trent established as a de fide dogma, the denial of which is anathematized. The Mass is Jesus Christ’s offering of Himself to the Most Holy Trinity.
A sidekick of Rembert Weakland, Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB of St. John’s, Collegeville — which might be described as the Kremlin of the Liturgical Movement in the United States — used to go around saying: “The ‘real presence’ is not a static presence in a piece of bread, but a dynamic presence in the assembly.” One does not know which to be more offended by: the appalling ignorance of dogmatic theology or the sneering tone. This apparently broad-minded “breaking free” of Tridentine constraints can still be found today at the 1970s nostalgia blog PrayTell. So obviously false an exaltation of the faithful as if they were the Word Incarnate, with a corresponding denigration of the unique mystery of the Eucharist, which is the Word Incarnate, explains why some are so skeptical of any mention of the congregation as the Body of Christ. Yet this latter doctrine is utterly traditional, as long as it is not Weaklanded or Diekmanned into falsehood.
In general, we are much more likely to land squarely on Catholic truth if we adopt the attitude of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Thus, participation for rational animals like ourselves — with not only intellects and wills, but mouths, ears, and tongues, vocal chords, imaginations, and memories — reaches from the peak of our souls to the flesh of our fingers, from contemplation to making the sign of the cross, bowing, kneeling, and chanting “Amen.” The whole man worships, using the means, spiritual and bodily, with which God equips us.
The same Council of Trent was well aware, standing on centuries of Catholic tradition reaching back into the Book of Exodus, that the Mass, in addition to being a sacrifice offered to God, is also the sacrificial banquet of the Lamb in which we partake of His flesh and blood. In the words of the Angelic Doctor: O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur: “O sacred feast, in which Christ is received.”
As cringe-worthy as it may sound to ears assaulted for decades by platitudes, the Mass is, in its essence — even when celebrated solely by a priest with an acolyte, and no congregation in sight — a social activity and a communal gathering, the Lord’s “assembly” (qahal, ekklesia, ecclesia). When we understand this last truth properly, we will see how beautiful and profound it is; it will enhance our appreciation of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and of its traditional features.
To understand Holy Communion, we should see it not as an isolated moment of private devotion, a “free gift” tacked on extraneously to the liturgy, but rather as part of the divine sacrifice itself that is offered to God by Our Lord Jesus Christ. The innermost reality of the Eucharist (called, in scholastic language, the res tantum) is the unity of the Church, the unity of Christ the Head with His members in the Mystical Body. No one explains this truth better than St. Augustine:
A true sacrifice, then, is every work done in order that we may draw near to God in holy fellowship[.] … [A] man who is consecrated in the name of God and pledged to God is himself a sacrifice insofar as he dies to the world so that he may live to God. … Our body also is a sacrifice when we chasten it by temperance, if we do so, as we ought, for God’s sake, so that we may not yield our members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin but as instruments of righteousness unto God. … And, if this is so, how much more does the soul itself become a sacrifice when it directs itself to God so that, inflamed with the fire of His love, it may receive His beauty and be pleasing to Him, losing the form of worldly desire and being reformed immutably by its submission to Him! … The whole of the redeemed City — that is, the congregation and fellowship of the saints — is offered to God as a universal sacrifice for us through the great High Priest Who, in His Passion, offered even Himself for us in the form of a servant, so that we might be the body of so great a Head. … This is the sacrifice of Christians: “We, being many, are one body in Christ.” And this also, as the faithful know, is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, by which she demonstrates that she herself is offered in the offering that she makes to God. (The City of God, Book X, ch. 6)
We do not fully grasp the meaning of Communion — either sacramental communion or ecclesiastical communion — until we understand it as sacrifice, as Christ’s offering to the Father. In like manner, the great Eastern author Dionysius the Areopagite, in his work The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, says Christ is the altar upon which we are the mystical holocaust being assimilated and unified with God. What is offered as our worship to God is not “merely” Our Lord’s flesh and blood, but the totus Christus, the Church in head and members. In other words, Christ is offered up not simply by Himself; we are, each and all, offered up with Him to the extent that we are united to Him in faith and love.
For many years, I have silently prayed a prayer right after the priest has uttered the awesome words of consecration and has genuflected before the bread-made-Word-made-flesh:
I worship You and adore You, my Lord and my God.
When he lifts up the holy Host to the gaze of faith, I pray:
I unite myself to Your sacrifice on the Cross, and I beg You to offer me, together with You, to the Most Holy Trinity.
When he genuflects again, I pray:
Remember, Lord, Your creatures, whom You have redeemed by Your Holy Cross.
When the wine is changed into the Blood of God and the priest again falls to his knee (for surely, he could not do otherwise before God in Person!) and when He elevates the chalice, I pray the same prayers. when he genuflects one last time, I say:
Remember, Lord, Your creatures, whom you have redeemed with Your Precious Blood. [i]
Where an interior union of faith and love already exists, Holy Communion perfects it, bringing us nearer to our ultimate end: eternal glory and beatitude in our risen body, configured to Christ’s glorified body, in the great communion of the saints, the heavenly Jerusalem, the society of the blessed, the City of God.
The foregoing is the mystical basis for the social nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is Christ’s oblation that makes the People of God really and truly one people, one Church, rather than a random cloud of atoms in space. Our unity is represented and accomplished in the Eucharist, which not only perfects us as individuals but also unites us to our neighbors, strengthens the bonds of our fellowship, and prompts us to go out of ourselves in love for others. As we are taught by the Epistle of the Second Sunday after Pentecost (1 Jn. 3:13–18), right in the midst of the octave of Corpus Christi: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. … In this we have known the charity of God, because He hath laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. … My little children, let us not love in word nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”
It is our privilege, living in this time of simultaneous liturgical meltdown and restoration, to rescue this and other truths from the one-sided distortions to which they have been reduced in recent decades, and to reintegrate them into our understanding and practice of the traditional Faith.
[i] Or in more traditional ecclesiastical language:
I worship Thee and adore Thee, my Lord and my God. I unite myself to Thy sacrifice on the Cross, and I beg Thee to offer me, in union with Thee, to the Most Holy Trinity. Remember, Lord, Thy creature, whom Thou hast redeemed by Thy Holy Cross / Remember, Lord, Thy creature, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy Precious Blood.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He 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 who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.