Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Blessings" at Communion: Just Say No!

I’ve been heartened the last few weeks as a couple of bishops have made the headlines by correcting some liturgical abuses: Bishop Morlino in Madison, Wisconsin, adhering to the established norms of offering only the Body of Christ, and not the Precious Blood, at Holy Communion; Bishop Olmsted in Arizona doing the same, and also accepting only male altar servers in his Cathedral. (As an added bonus, limiting reception of Holy Communion to one species also ends up correcting the error of having multitudes of lay ministers administering the chalice.)
This all puts me in mind of another abuse that I find particularly offensive: a communion procession interspersed with non-communicants who approach the priest or extraordinary minister for a “blessing” instead of receiving Holy Communion. It’s certainly not an unfamiliar experience in the Catholic Church in the United States. In fact, one priest of my acquaintance regularly gives these instructions just before Communion: “If you have not received your first Communion, or you are not disposed to receive Communion, please place your hand over your heart and you may receive a blessing. Everyone is welcome at the table of the Lord!”
Of course, I suppose we can acknowledge that while there is nothing in the rubrics to indicate that a blessing should or may be given to non-communicants during Holy Communion, neither is there any explicit prohibition of the practice.

However, in November 2008, a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments surfaced on the internet regarding this conferral of a “blessing” to non-communicants at Mass during Holy Communion. The letter was a response to an inquiry which consisted of two questions:

1. Is this a custom that is within the faculty of a pastor, the local Ordinary, or a Bishops’ Conference to establish? That is, is this custom something that can be regulated without recourse to this Congregation?

2. Are there particular guidelines or restrictions from this Congregation concerning a) which ministers of Holy Communion may give these blessings and b) what forms these blessings may take?

The letter from the CDW stated in part:
  1. The liturgical blessing of the Holy Mass is properly given to each and to all at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments subsequent to the distribution of Holy Communion.
  2. Lay people, within the context of Holy Mass, are unable to confer blessings. These blessings, rather, are the competence of the priest (cf. Ecclesia de Mysterio, Notitiae 34 (15 Aug. 1997), art. 6, § 2; can. 1169, § 2; and Roman Ritual De Benedictionibus (1985), n. 18).
  3. Furthermore, the laying on of a hand or hands -- which has its own sacramental significance, inappropriate here -- by those distributing Holy Communion, in substitution for its reception, is to be explicitly discouraged.
  4. The Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, n. 84, "forbids any pastor, for whatever reason to pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry." To be feared is that any form of blessing in substitution for communion would give the impression that the divorced and remarried have been returned, in some sense, to the status of Catholics in good standing.
  5. In a similar way, for others who are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in accord with the norm of law, the Church's discipline has already made clear that they should not approach Holy Communion nor receive a blessing. This would include non-Catholics and those envisaged in can. 915 (i.e., those under the penalty of excommunication or interdict, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin).
The intent here seems pretty clear to me: liturgical actions are kept in proper order both within the liturgy and according to the competence of the ministers; erroneous impressions of approval are avoided; and Holy Communion is recognized for what it is.
At the time the letter came out, I shared it with lay people and priests – and met with scoffing and sarcasm from some most. One friend asked, “Are we as lay people not to say ‘God bless you’ when someone sneezes?” From priests, I heard comments that tried to show “pastoral prudence”, such as: “How can we deny people a blessing which they have come to expect?” and “People will be upset and might leave the Church!” Or this one (see my eyes rolling?): “If we deny them a blessing, we are not showing them love, and after all, what would Jesus do?! Surely he would not deny them!”
The CDW letter, even if not “official”, still contained a clear statement that giving a “blessing” at Communion is inappropriate. But the fall-back position of several priests I spoke to, who objected to the idea of denying the blessing, seemed to be: “I’m not changing anything until I’m explicitly told I have to.” I do know one priest who was willing to withhold the blessing; he was told by his bishop that he must give it! Sigh. I think that the “spirit of Vatican II” is alive and well, while the spirit of obedience to authority is pitiably lacking!
What surprises me the most is that most of the people I have mentioned this to seem to be completely unaware of the underlying message that the “blessing at Communion” sends. The CDW letter mentions it briefly: “To be feared is that any form of blessing in substitution for communion” might give the wrong impression.
I would argue that indeed it does give the wrong impression, and has for many years. It has given the wrong impression so strongly that it has detracted from the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. It has detracted from our sense of sin. And it has convinced us that it is not really so urgent that we go to confession. And three years after the CDW letter came out, nothing has changed in my diocese.
Hmph! Well, I think this calls for a limerick:
The faithful want to be blessed,
Because they haven't confessed.
Rome says not to.
The bishop says "got to" --
Just as one would've guessed.

If the offended should all leave the Church,
The bishop'll be in the lurch.
There won't be enough money!
That wouldn't be funny.
It would require a new funding search.

They won't change the wrong for the right,
Or the "faithful" will exit in fright.
Pastors stick with the wrong
To maintain the throng,
And we end up with Katholic-Lite.

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