A pair of bishops in the Pacific Northwest may be on to something when it comes to inspiring reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, OR, and his neighbor directly to the south, Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Santa Rosa, CA, have issued liturgical instructions to their respective flocks that seek to increase love for and faith in the Holy Eucharist. To this end, both bishops are prohibiting so-called “Communion services” in their diocese. When a priest is absent, a member of the laity, consecrated religious, or a deacon are not to distribute Communion at the parish. In addition, Archbishop Sample has also asked that, out of reverence for the Eucharist, the faithful in the Portland archdiocese kneel after the “Lamb of God” in Mass.
In the May 15, 2018 issue of the Catholic Sentinel, official publication of the Archdiocese of Portland, Archbishop Sample announced that to ensure greater “understanding and reverence” for the Eucharist, on June 3 (Solemnity of Corpus Christi), the Archdiocese of Portland issued a new liturgical handbook with “two new changes in practice.”
The first involves the posture of the laity in Mass after the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).
“We will return to the practice of kneeling after the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God),” Archbishop Sample writes. “The current practice is to remain standing, which has been an exception to the universal norm of kneeling that has been perfectly legitimate and permitted by the liturgical norms. Nevertheless, returning to the practice of kneeling at this moment in the Mass will foster a greater reverence for our Lord.”
“The priest at that moment,” he adds, “is about to hold up before the congregation our Blessed Lord in the Holy Eucharist and proclaim, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ It seems most fitting that we be on our knees before the Lord for such a proclamation of faith.”
As a second change reflected in the handbook, Archbishop Sample writes that “the distribution of Holy Communion on weekdays in the parish church during a ‘Communion service’ will no longer be permitted. This does not affect such Communion services in nursing homes, prisons, etc., where the people do not have the opportunity to attend Mass on Sunday in the parish.”
In prohibiting the “Communion service,” Archbishop Sample reminds his flock that when no Mass is available, celebrating the Church’s greatest prayer in a neighboring parish church is the best alternative.
“The faithful can also gather for other forms of prayer,” he adds, “and our Office of Divine Worship has prepared a prayer service for such occasions that include parts of the Liturgy of the Hours with readings from the Mass of the day. This is a way to experience another form of the Church’s liturgical prayer.”
Two months after Archbishop Sample’s directives, Bishop Vasa also prohibited the so-called “Communion service” as a valid alternative to attending Mass. In the July 25, 2018 issue of the North Coast Catholic, official publication of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Bishop Vasa cited the Instruction on the Eucharist (Redemptionis Sacramentum) issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments on March 25, 2004:
165. It is necessary to avoid any sort of confusion between this type of gathering (Communion Service without Mass) and the celebration of the Eucharist. The diocesan Bishops, therefore, should prudently discern whether Holy Communion ought to be distributed in these gatherings.
166. Likewise, especially if Holy Communion is distributed during such celebrations, the diocesan Bishop, to whose exclusive competence this matter pertains, must not easily grant permission for such celebrations to be held on weekdays, especially in places where it was possible or would be possible to have the celebration of Mass on the preceding or the following Sunday. Priests are therefore earnestly requested to celebrate Mass daily for the people in one of the churches entrusted to their care. [Emphases in bold added by Bishop Vasa.]
In light of these instructions, Bishop Vasa provides four basic guidelines to priests of Santa Rosa, effective August 1, 2018:
“1. As a general policy, Communion Services instead of Mass are not allowed either on Sundays or on weekdays. Those who have been asked to do them in the past may no longer do so.
“2. Information about the times for Masses at nearby Parishes and Chapels is to be published regularly in Parishes of the Diocese so that those who are able may travel to other sites for Mass.
“3. Pastors are encouraged to make arrangements, when they are unable to celebrate Mass, for a Parish Leader to be instructed to lead the Community in Prayer according to the Approved Rites. The Rites include leading Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer or a Celebration of the Liturgy of the Word. A lay person leading the Service may read a text prepared by the Pastor. Only a Deacon may preach. These Services are to be conducted without the Distribution of Holy Communion.
“4. Deacons may also expose the Blessed Sacrament for a period of adoration followed by Benediction. Distribution of Holy Communion is not permitted in conjunction with Benediction.”
Like Archbishop Sample, Bishop Vasa points out that these guidelines have been issued with the greatest pastoral care for those persons who bring Holy Communion to the sick and shut-ins even as he reminded these same Eucharistic ministers that they are prohibited from reserving the Blessed Sacrament in their homes.
Both bishops see reverence for the Eucharist as an integral part of the living faith. In his May 15 column, Archbishop Sample recalled how the nearly universal custom of receiving Communion on the tongue instead of in the hands provided “a profound sense of reverence and awe for the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. It is not just a symbol or sign. Jesus Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.”
Mourning the fact that by contrast today “our liturgical and sacramental practices far too often do not reflect that profound understanding and faith in the Real Presence,” Archbishop Sample underscored his point by relating an account he’d heard of a Protestant minister who attended a Catholic Mass.
“Afterward he was questioned on what he thought,” Archbishop Sample writes. “He replied that he did not think that the congregation really believed in the Real Presence. When asked why he thought this, he said that he personally did not believe in the Eucharist as Catholics do, but if he did, he would approach our Lord for Communion walking on his knees. He found the casual and irreverent attitude at the time of Communion in that particular church very unconvincing.”
The “Communion service,” Bishop Vasa writes in his July 25 column, “while popular, is not consistent with the Instructions from the Holy See, cited above. Our respect for the Most Holy Eucharist requires that we take very seriously the Directives of the Church. Opinions about what should be done in our Parishes will certainly vary but what surrounds the Eucharist demands of us a deep fidelity to the Church and her Instructions.”
Archbishop Sample explains that there is “an intimate and intrinsic link” between offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the priest ministering in the person of Christ at this time, and the distribution of the Eucharist to the faithful.
“These are not to be separated except for serious reasons and pastoral need,” Archbishop Sample says. “As long as the faithful have the opportunity to participate in Mass and receive Holy Communion on Sunday, there is no such pastoral need to receive Holy Communion outside of Mass.”
As an eternal action, the Mass is more than a sum of its parts; the faithful “do much more than just receive Holy Communion,” Archbishop Sample writes, noting that all who attend Mass are active and conscious participants in Christ’s sacrifice.
“From this sacramental offering, we receive the Body and Blood of the Lord, thus culminating our participation in the paschal mystery being celebrated,” he explains. “The Church never envisioned breaking them apart by distributing Communion outside of Mass. This is only done for the sick and those otherwise unable to participate in the Sunday Eucharist. To do otherwise is very poor sacramental and Eucharistic theology.”