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Liturgy: Breaking the Host Before Consecration

And More on Previously Consecrated Hosts

ROME, OCT. 27, 2004 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: The pastor of my parish breaks the bread into two pieces prior to consecrating the bread into the precious Body of Christ. Then he holds the two pieces of bread, one in one hand, one in the other. Then he spreads his hands wide apart, and as he pronounces the words of consecration, he brings his hand together, and touches the two consecrated hosts at the lower end. I always understood that the bread is not to be broken till after the Lamb of God is announced. This is a source of concern and very disturbing to some of the members of our parish. -- E.F., Scottsdale, Arizona

A: This theme is succinctly addressed in the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 55:

"In some places there has existed an abuse by which the Priest breaks the host at the time of the consecration in the Holy Mass. This abuse is contrary to the tradition of the Church. It is reprobated and is to be corrected with haste."

It is hard to be much clearer than that.

This abuse seems to have arisen from a literal and somewhat dramatic interpretation of the words of the institution narrative of the consecration "He took the bread, broke it ..."

This might be a symptom related to our televised society where the visual image predominates over the deeper meaning. And so, some priests, often in good faith, have been led to adopt in a more dramatic or even theatrical mode while celebrating the Mass.

Thus, some see themselves almost as acting out the role of Christ by imitating his words and gestures.

This phenomenon, however, may also be indicative of a lack of formation and of a defective understanding of the priest's ministerial role as acting "in persona Christi" and the theological content of the words of consecration as form of the sacrament.

Of course, if one were to be totally consistent with this view, then Communion would logically have to be distributed immediately after pronouncing the words "gave it to his disciples," etc.

As far as I know, this has never been attempted.

In a way, the other parts of the Eucharistic Prayer explicate what is contained within the institution narrative as the summit of Christ's paschal mystery of his death and resurrection, the center of salvation history.

During the course of the celebration each element of the consecration is rendered clearer and in a way is also made present.

During the offertory the Church takes the bread and wine and offers up thanks and praise to the Father.

Before the consecration the Church also calls upon the Holy Spirit to intervene just as he did in Christ's incarnation and throughout his life.

The prayer which immediately follows the consecration, often called the "Anamnesis," because it begins with a phrase such as "Father, calling to mind his death and resurrection ..." is, in a way, the Mass defining itself by explaining what is meant by Christ's command to the apostles to "do this in memory of me."

This prayer shows that the priest, in the consecration, is saying and doing more than just repeating Christ's words and gestures.

What is called to mind and made present throughout history is Christ's death resurrection and ascension into glory.

The command to "do this" also means imitating in our lives the attitudes of the loving and total self-giving which Christ demonstrated in his sacrifice.

After this the Eucharistic Prayers generally invoke the Holy Spirit once more so that we may obtain the fruits of the celebration, above all to be united in charity and to intercede along with Christ for all those, living and dead, who need our prayer. This is done so that the overall purpose of the Eucharist is achieved when we are united with the saints in heaven.

Finally, in the doxology, we recognize that all that is done through, with and in Christ in union with the Holy Spirit, is done for the Father's honor and glory just as Christ constantly offered all to the Father.

This might seem to be a digression away from the main point of the question. But I wish to show that unless the Eucharistic Prayer is complete, the full meaning of the gesture involved in breaking and giving is truncated and not fully grasped.

The gesture is not the breaking and giving of a piece of bread but of the Lord's Body sacrificed yet risen and ascended into glory.

It is not partaking of a simple meal, but of Christ's eternal sacrifice from which springs our salvation.

Perhaps I am reading too much into what might appear as a simple practical gesture, albeit one that has been present from the beginning of Christianity. Yet I believe that many of these gestures obey an inner logic and may not be tampered with without peril.

* * *

Follow-up: Previously Consecrated Hosts

Following our response regarding concelebrants receiving previously consecrated hosts from the tabernacle (see Oct. 12) a Canadian reader asked about using the tabernacle to distribute Communion for the faithful.

She writes: "I understand that the core of Sunday Eucharist is the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine. I truly appreciate this and experience this theological and liturgical understanding as most nourishing to mind, body and soul. However, I always cringe when I see the weekly 'trek to the tabernacle.' Even though in our parish those who wish to receive Communion place a host in the ciborium at the entrance to the church (which then gets taken up at the offertory along with the wine), the reserved sacrament in the tabernacle is always brought forward. The result is often that more hosts are placed back in the tabernacle than were taken out. I have several problems with this:

"Does the use of consecrated hosts at Eucharist not fracture the Eucharistic sacrifice, i.e., some will receive Communion from that particular Mass and others from a previous Mass? Does this not violate Jesus' command to 'take, bless, break and share?' Would we serve leftovers at our home if we had a freshly cooked meal ready to be enjoyed?

"We also have regular services of the Word with Communion when our parish priest is absent. Since unfortunately the reserved sacrament is already used in the Eucharistic celebration itself, it adds to the confusion in the faithful about the distinction between Eucharist and the lay-presided service of the Word with Communion. It would greatly help our catechesis if the hosts in the tabernacle are not used during the Sunday Eucharist and thus would get a stronger connection with non-Eucharistic services."

I had already partially dealt with this topic in the column of Feb. 17, when I wrote:

"The Church's magisterium has several times expressed a strong preference for 'that more perfect form of participation in the Mass by which the faithful, after the priest's Communion, receive the Lord's Body from the same Sacrifice' (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 13). Thus, insofar as possible the faithful should receive Communion from hosts consecrated during the Mass itself and not just receive from the tabernacle.

"This practice requires a greater effort on the part of the priest and those who assist him in preparing the celebration. It is usually achievable after a while as the number of communicants at most parishes is fairly regular.

"A sufficient number of hosts should be reserved in the tabernacle to ensure that none ever be deprived of Communion due to miscalculation. And it will be sometimes necessary to use the tabernacle in order to renew the reserved hosts."

To this statement I would add a couple of comments in the light of what our reader mentioned.

Her expression about "serving leftovers" is rather unfortunate and theologically incorrect. While the sign value of receiving a host consecrated in the same Mass is certainly more perfect, the Mass is always the same unique sacrifice of Christ. So those who receive from the tabernacle receive the same Christ -- fruit of the same sacrifice.

The image she uses is perhaps an illustration of the inherent dangers of overemphasizing the meal aspect of the Mass (while not denying the reality of this meal or sacred banquet aspect).

From a pastoral standpoint I consider very perceptive her observation that in situations where the rite of Holy Communion in the Absence of a Priest is common, then the use of the tabernacle for Communion at Mass could contribute to confusion as to the role of priest and lay extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

Priests should be especially careful in similar circumstance to do all that is possible to stress the unique character of the Mass with respect to other rites, which can never really substitute for it.

Another reader, a priest, asked: "Our parish has had a number of consecrated hosts left in the pews and on the floor recently after Sunday Masses. We believe it is due to Communion in the hand. Do you know if the pastor of the parish can establish the rule in his parish: 'Communion on the tongue only'? Or can his bishop grant this to a parish on a case-by-case basis? Or does it have to go through the bishops' conference if his country has the indult?"

In principle the communicant who receives in the hand should communicate immediately and in front of the minister.

The faithful need to be reminded of this norm every now and again, so as to prevent accidents due to absent-mindedness or carelessness.

My own experience is that a priest can usually keep control, out of the corner of the eye, so to speak, so that the faithful do communicate in the proper manner.

Only rarely have I had to call attention to someone to ensure that they had consumed the host.

In one area that had suffered several attempts to steal hosts for sacrilegious purposes it became necessary for someone to flank the priest to ensure that Communion was consumed.

This said, if the solution of the faithful communicating immediately were to prove insufficient, then the diocesan bishop would have the authority to derogate the permission for receiving on the hand.

In some circumstances -- for example, an outdoor Mass celebrated on uneven terrain -- even the priest celebrant could prudentially opt only to administer on the tongue for that occasion in order to limit the danger of hosts falling to the earth.

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Keywords

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