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Beyond the Mass
Each year, the members of the Bianchi family gather at their grandparents’ home
after Mass on Easter Sunday. In addition to the way-too-much food grandmother prepares,
her daughters each make special dishes. The resulting meal is a combination of Easter joy,
great food and family ties.
One year, shortly before Easter, grandmother fell, broke her hip and was
in the hospital on Easter Sunday. Even though she could not be present, she insisted that
the family gather as usual; and so they did. They celebrated their family’s traditional
After the meal, they took some of Rita’s ham, Clara’s lasagna
and Angela’s pie and went to share the dishes with their mother. They wanted her
to know that, although she was not able to be physically present with them at their family
gathering, she was very much a part of their Easter celebration.
When I help parishioners prepare for the ministry of bringing Holy Communion
to those who cannot be present for Sunday Eucharist, I often use this story to help them
to appreciate that they are bringing more than the consecrated Host. Through their ministry
of prayer and sacrament they assure those to whom they minister of the presence and support
of the parish family, the eucharistic community, the Body of Christ. This “more” is
important not only theologically but also psychologically, because the sense of isolation
or separation from family and friends is often one of the hardest parts of being ill.
Bringing Communion to the sick has a long history. However, some of the
earliest accounts of Communion outside of Mass are not about taking Communion to the sick
but of taking Communion to members of the community who were in prison! Today we are so
accustomed to freedom of religion that we can forget there were times when being a Christian
was a crime. And sometimes we forget that there are Christians in similar circumstances
Food for the journey
Besides sharing the Eucharist with those in prison, we also have early indications
that Bread from the eucharistic banquet was sometimes reserved after Mass so that Christians
who were in danger of death would be able to receive viaticum (literally,
“food for the journey”). Our current Roman Ritual states: “The
primary and original reason for reservation of the Eucharist outside Mass is the administration
of viaticum” (Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass,
It might appear to be a simple step to go from reservation of the Eucharist
for viaticum to the practice of adoring the Eucharist outside of Mass, but this development
was influenced by a complex set of circumstances and took place over many years.
It is not possible in a few paragraphs to present a comprehensive account
of this history, even if we limit our consideration to the Latin or Roman part of the Catholic
Church. Yet some understanding of the key issues involved is necessary if we are to appreciate
our Roman Catholic tradition of devotion to the reserved sacrament.
Language can isolate
In the year 787 Charlemagne ordered that schools be established throughout
the Roman Empire so that clergy and laity might learn to read and write. He wanted everyone
to be able to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed in their own language, but he decreed
that priests were to say Mass only in Latin despite the fact that it was no longer the
In the first centuries, when Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire,
the Mass was celebrated in Greek. When Latin became the language of the Empire about the
fourth century, the Mass was celebrated in Latin. But around the eighth century, as the
nations of Europe began speaking
“national” languages, the Mass—for the first time—began to be celebrated
in a language that was not understood by the participants.
If you have ever traveled in a country where you did not speak the local
language, you know how this inability to communicate isolates you and gives you a feeling
of powerlessness. It was something of this same experience of not being able to understand
what the priest was saying that caused the laity to become increasingly isolated from the
prayers of the Eucharist. Mass became the domain of the priests. They began to say Mass
with their backs to the people and to say Mass privately, without the presence of a congregation.
Eating becomes looking
Toward the end of the 12th century, priests began to lift the Host above
their heads after the words “This is my body...” so that it could be seen and
adored by the people who were now standing behind them. This custom spread throughout Europe
and, for many Catholics, looking at the elevated Host became the high point of the Mass.
At this same time, the reception of Communion became less and less frequent. The laity
began to find their spiritual nourishment in looking at the consecrated Bread rather
than sharing in the sacred meal by receiving Communion.
We saw earlier that the “primary and original reason for reservation
of the Eucharist outside Mass [was] the administration of viaticum.” At first this
Bread for viaticum was kept in a box in a sacristy cupboard. But at about the same time
that the elevation of the Host became central to the Mass, the place where the Blessed
Sacrament was reserved became more central as well.
The place of reservation moved from a cupboard in the sacristy to a small
box hanging over the altar where the people could see it. And from there it moved to a
small cupboard or tabernacle placed on the altar itself.
From action to object
These changes in ritual and architecture were preceded and accompanied by
a subtle change in the way people thought about the Eucharist. In pre-Christian times,
northern Europeans were fascinated with magical sayings and objects. From about the ninth
century, this fascination began to influence their understanding of the Eucharist. We have
manuscripts from this period that speak of the consecrated Bread as “a thing which
possesses power.” There is a subtle shift from thinking of the Eucharist as an action (a
sacred meal) to thinking of the Eucharist as an object of adoration.
These same European Christians had a great interest in the relics of the
saints (for example, the bones of martyrs) and they began to display these holy objects
in cases called reliquaries. It was a simple step to place the Blessed Sacrament
in a reliquary (which we now call a monstrance) so that it could be seen and adored.
When I was a child, my mother took me with her to Mass every morning—a
practice that continued all during my grade school years. Dad didn’t go with us because,
by the time we left the house for Mass, he had already gone off to work. The only time
we could all go to church together was on Sunday mornings or in the evenings.
In the 1940s there were no evening Masses. Anyone who wanted to receive
Holy Communion had to fast from all food and drink from the previous midnight; not even
a drop of water was permissible. So when we went to church as a family on a weekday evening,
it was not for Mass but for Benediction.
Even as a child I enjoyed ritual and ceremony—and Benediction had it
all! In many ways Benediction was “bigger” than Mass: The priest wore more
elaborate vestments; there were more candles and flowers; there was organ music and singing;
we all said prayers out loud, together. And it lasted longer than Mass. Sometimes we prayed
for a whole hour—a
“Holy Hour”—recalling the challenging words of Jesus to Peter in the
Garden of Gethsemane, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Mt
26:40; emphasis added). The most solemn moment of Benediction occurred when the priest
took the monstrance and made the Sign of the Cross over the congregation. It is this blessing
that gives the service its name: Benediction.
Benediction remains a favorite devotion for many Catholics. It “offers
the opportunity to the people of God for prayerful reflection on their call to a deeper
devotion to the Holy Eucharist and a more faithful living of the Christian life” (Solemn
Exposition of the Holy Eucharist, #3).
While Benediction retains its function and continues to be a source of grace,
evening Masses are now possible due to the change in the rules for fasting before the reception
of Holy Communion. Some parishioners who attend church on a weekday evening prefer to celebrate
the Eucharist rather than Benediction.
At both Mass and Benediction we can hear the voice of Christ in the Scripture
readings, as “it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the
church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #7). But it is at Mass that we
become present to the Paschal Mystery through the anamnesis (memorial) of the liturgical
action and are able to share the sacred meal of the Eucharist.
With this brief history of Communion outside of Mass and worship of the Blessed
Sacrament, we come to the end of these 12 monthly reflections celebrating the Year of the
Eucharist. We have explored the structure and elements of the Mass and the meaning of the
Eucharist as sacrament, presence, meal and sacrifice. We have also looked briefly at the
history of the Eucharist.
Frequently during this series we have said that the mystery of the Eucharist
is rooted in the paschal mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection—the
mystery we celebrate in a most solemn way during the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday
and Easter Sunday.
Each year when we begin these liturgical rites that bring us into contact
with the origins of the Eucharist and the origins of our Church, we gather for the Eucharist
on Holy Thursday and we wash feet. Washing feet! Isn’t this a rather strange
way to begin these holiest of days?
Perhaps the Church proposes this ritual foot-washing to remind us of a dimension
of the Eucharist that we might neglect: The Eucharist is a sacrament of humble service.
It is wonderful to be inspired by beautiful vestments and monstrances of gold and silver,
and it is helpful to understand anamnesis, epiclesis and transubstantiation.
But we can never forget that the Eucharist transforms us into the Body of Christ so that
we might think and act like Christ. This transformation is at the heart of the mystery.
Jesus commands: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed
your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:14-15). Humble service
to one another! The Eucharist forms us for this mission and strengthens us to realize it.
This is why Pope John Paul II (echoing the words of the Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church at Vatican II) called the Eucharist “the source and summit”
of Catholic life and mission.
This is the last in a series of 12 articles on the Eucharist by Father
Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. His book, Eucharist: Jesus With Us, will be published
by St. Anthony Messenger Press in late 2006.
What has been your experience of receiving and/or adoring
Christ in the Eucharist outside of Mass (Benediction, eucharistic adoration, when
sick or hospitalized, etc.)? What personal meaning did you find in these experiences?
There has been a recent renewal of Benediction and eucharistic
adoration in many areas of the Church. How should participation in these devotions
enhance our participation in the Mass?
How are your experiences of the Eucharist (within and outside
of Mass) transforming you and your community to think and act like Christ?
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