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Communion With the Lord & the Church
In my experience, the Communion Ritewhich begins with the Lords
Prayer and ends with the Prayer After Communionis one part of the Mass that has not
changed at all. Yet, in another sense, it has changed very much!
I still remember that Sunday morning in Wichita, Kansas, in the 1940s when
I received Holy Communion for the first time. From that day until this, Holy Communion
has been a climactic moment in the eucharistic celebration for me. It always was and still
is a time of prayer and intimate union with Christ. This has not changed. But there are
elements of the Communion Rite that have changed a lot over the decades.
External, internal changes
When I compare my experience of the Communion Rite today with my first Holy
Communion, I find that there are several observable, external changes in the ritual. I
can name at least six: (1) We can receive Communion in the hand rather than on the tongue.
(2) We receive standing up rather than kneeling down. (3) We can receive both the Bread
and from the Cup. Formerly we were only permitted to receive the host. (4) Today the majority
of Catholics attending Mass receive Holy Communion. As a child, my mother took me to Mass
every day, and I received Holy Communion daily. But not everyone at Mass went to Communion
in those days. (5) We now see non-ordained ministers distributing Communion. When I received
my first Holy Communion, only the priest (or deacon) was permitted to touch the host and
distribute the Eucharist. (6) And today in many churches the host is larger and thicker
than when I received my first Holy Communion. The current General Instruction of the
Roman Missal directs that the material for the eucharistic celebration truly
have the appearance of food (#321).
Those of you reading this article who do not remember the Communion Rite
before the 1969 revision of the Mass probably dont notice these changes because for
you todays Communion Rite looks much like it always has. But for Catholics my age
and older, these changes are new.
Some of us welcomed them; others were less than happy.
I could take each of these changes and explain their purpose and function.
But rather than discuss these observable, external changes in the Communion Rite, I think
that it might be more productive for us to look at some changes that might not be visible
at all. I want to consider three internal changes in the way we think about the Eucharist
and understand what it is we are doing during the Communion Rite.
How would you answer these questions?
1) When you think about Holy Communion at Mass do you think in terms of receiving
or do you think in terms of sharing a sacred meal?
2) Do you think first about the physical and spiritual implications of the
act of eating the host, or do you also think of the symbolic and sacramental dimensions
of the action?
3) How do you imagine or picture Christ present at the Eucharist?
Sharing the Lords Supper
1) Do you experience Holy Communion as a private, individual act (receiving
Holy Communion) or as a communal act done with the other members of the worshiping community
(sharing a sacred meal)?
I must admit that for most of my life I thought of Holy Communion primarily
as a private act. Communion was the moment when I received Jesus into my heart. It was
a moment of intense personal and private prayer. But there is a problem here.
If I am to have a personal encounter with the risen Lord in Holy Communion,
by inference that encounter would also be private and individual. Yet we know that the
liturgy is not a private prayer but a communal actioneven though it is at the same
time personal. The liturgyand Holy Communionis a personal-communal act.
Some years ago, a statement by the United States bishops Committee
on the Liturgy reminded us that our American cultural emphasis on individuality and
competition has made it more difficult for us to appreciate the liturgy as a personal-communal experience.
As a consequence, we tend to identify anything private and individual as personal.
But, by inference, anything communal and social is considered impersonal. For the sake
of good liturgy, this misconception must be changed
(Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, #16).
My experience of Holy Communion has shifted from an individual and private
act to an action that is communal and publicwhile still remaining intensely personal.
One of the ways I express the community dimension of this sacred action is by joining my
voice in song with the voices of the others with whom I am sharing the Eucharist. We join
our voices in a hymn and express common sentiments of devotion. We unite our minds and
hearts in common prayer. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the
purpose of the Communion chant is to express the communicants union in spirit
by means of the unity of their voices (#86).
For me, singing during Communion time used to be a distraction from my individual,
private prayer. Now I see singing as an expression of the personal-communal dimension of
the Communion Rite.
A symbolic, sacramental action
2) When you think about the meaning of Holy Communion, do you think first
in terms of receiving the consecrated bread or do you also consider the symbolic dimensions
of the action?
For many years, my attention was focused primarily on the implications of
receiving the host. I was taught that ordinarily when I eat something, my body changes
the thing eaten into my living body. But when I receive the Body of Christ in Holy Communion,
the very opposite happens: I am changed into Christs Body. At the Eucharist, in a
very profound and unexpected way, the familiar saying is true: You are what you eat!
While this way of thinking is correctand open to rich spiritual insightin
the past I did not always consider the wider symbolic and sacramental aspects of Holy Communion.
Here again we are shaped and formed by our American culture. The document Environment
and Art in Catholic Worship points out that a culture which is oriented to efficiency
and production has made us insensitive to the symbolic function of persons and things (#16).
For example, if I am simply thinking in terms of efficiency, I know that
Christ is contained whole and entireBody and Bloodunder the appearances of
even the smallest piece of consecrated bread. There is no need to have a larger host, or
bread that has
the appearance of food. There is no need to receive under both kindsthat
is, both to eat and to drink.
It is only when I consider the importance of the symbolic, sacramental
nature of the ritual action that I begin to see the significance of drinking from
the Cup. At my daily ordinary
meals I both eat and drink. The current directives for Mass state:
Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it is distributed under both
kinds. For in this form the sign of the eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident
#281, italics added). Regarding the eucharistic Bread: The meaning of the sign demands
that the material for the eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food (GIRM,
#321, italics added).
On Holy Thursday, when we recall the Last Supper and the institution of the
Eucharist, we pray:
As we eat his Body
we grow in strength. As we drink his Blood which he poured
out for us, we are washed clean (Preface for Holy Thursday). When we share
the Bread, we become his Body. When we drink his Blood, we give the sign of how we
become his Bodyby pouring out our lifeblood in generous love, even as Christ did.
Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ
3) How do you imagine or picture Christ present at the Eucharist?
I am not sure why I picture the historical Jesus of Nazareth the way that
I do. But if I close my eyes and try to picture Jesus, he looks a lot like the Sacred Heart
statue that stood by the side altar of St. Anthony Church where I worshiped as a child.
Of course, I know he didnt actually look like that; it is improbable that Jesus had
blond hair, blue eyes and Germanic features.
But the important thing to remember is that Jesus of Nazareth has passed
through death and is now the risen Christ. Christs Resurrection was not
a return to earthly life
In his risen body he passes from the state of death to
another life beyond time and space
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, #646).
St. Pauls first experience of the risen Christ is recorded in the Acts
of the Apostles (9:3-5): Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly
a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying
to him, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
He asked, Who are you, sir? The reply came, I am Jesus, whom you are
Pauls insight was that the Christian is so united to Christ that what
we do to one another we do to Christ himself. The early Church remembered that Jesus had
promised a mysterious and real communion between his own body and ours (CCC,
It is this real communion with the body of the risen Lord that
led St. Augustine to give this explanation of the Eucharist: If then you are the
Body of Christ and his members, it is your sacrament that reposes on the altar of the Lord
what you see and receive what you are (Sermon 272).
There you are on the table and there you are in the chalice (Sermon 229).
Three ritual actions
When you imagine the risen Christ, does the image include his Body, the Church?
The petition of the Eucharistic Prayer at every Mass asks God to change us
into the Body of Christ:
by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one Bread and one Cup into the one
Body of Christ
(Eucharistic Prayer IV). As we move from the Eucharistic Prayer to the Communion
Rite, we reinforce that petition through three ritual actions:
1) We pray the Lords Prayer and ask the Father to forgive us
our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We pray that we might
be able to forgive all those who have in any way injured us so that nothing can divide
the Body of Christ, and we ask pardon of all whom we have injured.
2) We offer a sign of forgiveness and reconciliationthe Sign of Peace.
The meaning of peace is found in the Hebrew word shalom which means wholeness. The
Kiss of Peace is our promise that all brokenness and division are to be healed.
3) We come forward to share in the Lords banquet, conscious of the
deep religious tradition that sharing a meal with someone is a sign of forgiveness and
In the Communion Rite, the petition of the Eucharistic Prayer is accomplished:
We who eat and drink his Body and Blood are transformed into that Body. We become Christs
presence in the world. We are commissioned to go forth to continue the mission of Christ
to reconcile all things to his Father. And this brings us to the fourth and final movement
of the Mass, the Commissioning Ritethe subject of our next newsletter.
Next: Source and Summit of Catholic Life
What changes in the way we receive Communion, if any, have
been made since your first Holy Communion? What do these changes say about how
we as a Church think about the Eucharist?
How much do the pre-Vatican II liturgy and the American emphasis
on individuality play in the difficulty some Catholics have in embracing the celebration
of the Mass as personal-communal?
How can you better express your desire for unity in the Body
of Christ through the rituals of the Communion RiteLords Prayer, Sign
of Peace, Communion Procession?
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