Mar 15, 2005

Signs and Wonders

Online Edition – March 2005

Vol. XI, No. 1

Signs and Wonders

The way we worship is not just a matter of style to be updated when fashions change: it expresses what we most deeply believe to be true.

by Anthony Corvaia, Jr.

A local parish announced recently that it was eliminating the longtime use of bells and incense at the consecration of the Mass. I was saddened to hear this. Had this decision been made for pastoral reasons or because there were not enough altar servers to carry out the rites, I could have understood the change — after all, these practices are optional and their elimination does not represent some gross liturgical violation. But the reasons given were the standard ones: Bells and incense at the elevation are simply remnants of outdated medieval practice that no longer serve any useful purpose. They interrupt the flow of the Liturgy of the Eucharist by focusing too much on the moment of consecration and place too much emphasis on the Eucharist as something to be adored rather than received. In short, they are abuses.

The best response to these allegations is not a historical discourse tracing the evolution of these practices and defending their current relevance, but simply an application of the lex orandi, lex credendi principle — "how we worship shows what we believe". At the moment of consecration the substance of the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. This truth is acknowledged by external actions prescribed by the Church in her liturgy, among them the ringing of bells and incensation of the Sacred Species. It is interesting to note that in revising the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments could easily have eliminated these practices (it certainly eliminated many others) but instead retained them. They are completely licit and therefore cannot be considered abuses.

Regarding incense, some have interpreted paragraph 276 of the General Instruction as allowing the individual selection of what is to be incensed.

…Incense may be used if desired in any form of Mass:
During the Entrance procession;
At the beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and the altar;
At the Gospel procession and the proclamation of the Gospel itself;
After the bread and the chalice have been placed upon the altar, to incense the offerings, the cross, and the altar, as well as the priest and the people;
At the showing of the host and chalice after the consecration.

But paragraph 277 proposes no "hierarchy of incensations" among the Gospel Book, cross, gifts, priest, people and Blessed Sacrament.

…The following are incensed with three swings of the thurible: the Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the Paschal Candle, the priest, and the people…

These two paragraphs taken together surely imply a consistency of usage of incense and by extension other signs of veneration. Would anyone advocate incensing the priest and not the Gospel? Similarly can one justify the incensation of the Gospel and not the Sacrament? Doesn’t it seem inconsistent to see the Book of the Gospels carried in procession, held aloft, displayed on the altar, incensed, proclaimed from a decorated ambo, and kissed while the Blessed Sacrament is afforded the most meager reverence and dignity? Doesn’t that send a message that one is much more important than the other?

The charge that incense and bells interrupt the flow of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is totally unfounded. First of all one could argue that the execution of a rubric cannot impede a rite when it is de facto part of the rite! Or one could countercharge that the Memorial Acclamation is just as disruptive, as is the Sign of Peace, and that the singing of the Sanctus places too much emphasis on the Preface. What constitutes "too much emphasis" in this case is so subjective that it cannot be used to justify any decision.

Regarding the adoration issue, we again turn to the rubrics. During the institution narrative, the laity and the deacons are to kneel, a posture of both prayer and adoration. After the words of institution, a rubric in the Sacramentary instructs the priest to show the Sacred Host and the chalice of Precious Blood to the people – and why, if not for adoration? The priest is then instructed to genuflect in adoration. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear on this subject:

§ 1377: The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist…

§ 1378: In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord. "The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it…." (emphasis added)

Perhaps the parish’s decision to eliminate these practices was made with the best of intentions, but the rationale offered betrays the guiding force at work. It is a view of the Mass, especially the Liturgy of the Eucharist, based not on the official liturgical documents and rubrics but on the modernist liturgical agenda that claims to be the real voice of liturgical reform. This agenda comes from "progressive" liturgists who recognize no authority except their own; it is touted as arising from Vatican II when in fact it occasioned the corrective document, Redemptionis Sacramentum; it is preached with evangelical fervor at liturgy workshops and it is eagerly adopted by well-meaning but often susceptible parish liturgy committees and pastors.

If my suspicions are correct, the elimination of incense and bells portends other "improvements". Over time the faithful will be instructed to stand during the Eucharistic Prayer, they will be "fraternally corrected" when kneeling for Communion, they will be dissuaded from receiving on the tongue and made to feel guilty if they receive under one form only. They will be prevented from kneeling when they return to their pews, they will be told that the time after Communion is not a time for quiet individual thanksgiving prayer and recollection.

Extemporaneous prayers and canons will be lauded as more relevant than the formal language of the Missal. The chalice veil, pall, burse and even the corporal will fall into disuse, altar servers will adopt street dress, an alb and stole will suffice as Eucharistic vestments, and the elevation of the Elements after their consecration will disappear, along with the priest’s genuflections. The Body of Christ will be served up from breadbaskets like snack food and the Blood of Christ dispensed in pretty stemware.

These "improvements" are not insignificant changes, but instead suggest a new understanding of the very nature of the Mass and of the Eucharist. "How we worship shows what we believe". And what do these practices lead us to believe? Here’s how I read it:

  • The Eucharist is primarily a communal memorial meal. Whatever does not conform to the meal metaphor and is not "communal" is to be avoided. Accordingly the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is reduced to a mere commemoration.

  • Since the Eucharist is primarily a meal and not a sacrifice, the priest presides as the host of the meal rather than ministering in the person of Christ.

  • At this meal, the Eucharistic Elements, while somehow representing a presence of Christ, are for consumption only and never for adoration. Therefore any external signs that emphasize the objective reality of the Real Presence in the Eucharist are inappropriate.

  • Solemnity, decorum, reverence and tradition are bad things.

The extent to which these ideas already have permeated the Church is evident in many ways.

We see it in the vague language used to describe the substance of the Eucharist, now commonly termed "consecrated bread and wine". We see it in the plethora of poorly celebrated liturgies — in readers who cannot read, in cantors who cannot sing, in servers who have received little or no training, in celebrants who obviously have not reviewed any of the texts beforehand, and in homilists who preach off-the-cuff. We see it in the disregard for the rubrics, or what is worse a willful refusal to follow any official directives. We see it in the clericalization of the laity and the laicization of the clergy. We see it in celebrants who glad-hand their friends in the entrance and exit processions. We see it in "worship spaces" decorated in the manner of store windows. We see it in the never-ending stream of maudlin music, the elimination of choirs and the replacement of organs with keyboards. We see it in the lack of solid catechesis given to the faithful on liturgy, including how to participate properly in it.

These are the fruits of an earthbound ecclesiology — a view of the Church that has lost the vision of the heavenly liturgy and instead sees the currently popular understanding of "community" as its highest good and its only criterion. It finds the gathered assembly to be the truest "incarnation" of Christ — the real "real presence". It dotes on the dictums of psychology and sociology but conveniently disregards the Church’s tradition and Magisterium or teaching authority. It is led and shaped by popular culture instead of leading and transforming it. Consequently it loves innovation and detests consistency. It will not admit the sacredness of any person, place, event or thing. It is born of a theology that values sharing over what is shared and inclusion over what is included. It is the theology of the Protestant Reformers taken to its logical conclusion. For Catholicism, it is the theology of self-destruction.

If the Church is only about the popular definition of "community" rather than about the Mystical Body of Christ, then the Eucharist really is just a communal memorial meal, and we don’t need liturgical vestments, or special vessels, or all those prayers and rituals, or even a priest. If the only true Real Presence of Christ is the assembled faithful, then the Communion Breakfast is just as sacramental as Communion, the after-Mass coffee hour just as authentic a Eucharist as Mass itself. If matters of faith and doctrine are no longer important in forming one’s religious identity, if there are no "membership credentials", then there is no real ecclesial community, which is to say there is no Church, and the Eucharist as the "bond of unity" is mocked. If it’s only about having fellowship and sharing food, then let’s just all go to brunch.

At a time when belief in the Real Presence is on the decline, when many of the faithful are so poorly catechized, when they see no substantive difference between Catholicism and other religions and float freely among them, then all of these practices — bells and incense, vessels and vestments, gestures and postures — become more important than ever. They remind us that at Mass we are both on earth and in heaven, a place where something truly special — indeed miraculous — happens, a place of signs and wonders, a place where the Christ who was heard in the Gospel, who is represented by the altar, who acts through the priest, and who is in the midst of the two or three gathered together, becomes present in an even more excellent way as the very Lamb of God — sacrificed and broken, risen and ascended, invisible yet visible — to be adored, loved, thanked and received.


Anthony Corvaia, Jr. has been actively involved in liturgy for more than 20 years, and has served as parish liturgist, music coordinator and hymnographer. Most recently he was commissioned to write a hymn text for the National Shrine’s celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Mr. Corvaia lives in Philadelphia.



Anthony Corvaia, Jr.