Becoming the Body of Christ

Part One

“What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?”
― Godfrey Diekmann OSB

I’ve spent the weekend riding the shockwaves of reactions to Traditionis Custodes. As you would expect, it’s a very mixed bag of responses with some very regrettable postings on both sides. As a Benedictine nun of 28 years I am always looking for the middle way. I don’t think I’ve found it yet. My thoughts haven’t come together into something that is a discernible whole, but I feel it is important to write something nonetheless.

Do read the full text here:

Early this morning the above quote from Godfrey Diekman came into my mind and just wouldn’t leave. It’s a rather provocative statement that just about encapsulates my understanding of Eucharist. I say ‘just about’ because I don’t think words can ever really fully express this mystery. I knew that I wanted to begin my post with these words and effectively nail my colours to the theological mast. I wanted to post a picture too as visuals always draw me into a piece of writing. I hit a problem. If you type ‘Eucharist’ into a picture website you’ll get pictures of a priest holding up a host, pictures of a loaf and grapes, pictures of a monstrance etc etc. Similarly if you type in ‘Church’ you’ll get buildings. I needed an image open to a broader interpretation. So then I had to think a little laterally and typed in ‘Worship’. Children sharing a hymn sheet at church seemed a good compromise.

My thoughts have been going in so many directions these past days and they are not very orderly. I have decided to group my thoughts under headings. I have also realised that it is almost impossible to read Traditionis Custodes in an objective way and come to neat and tidy conclusions. A strand of the subjective is almost inevitable and perhaps necessary as we try to find a way through.

The Parish Church
My thoughts begin with my own childhood in the North East, in my parish church of the Holy Rosary, in Sunderland. The church itself is on a slight hill and from it you can see the neighbouring parish of the Immaculate Heart. The names themselves give more than a hint of the ecclesiological climate at the time of their building. There was an unspoken rule that you went to Mass at your own parish and only in exceptional circumstances did you go to ‘the other parish’. Each church had a ‘Children’s Mass’, though I think it might be more accurate to say it was a Mass, to which large groups of children came. The Sisters of Mercy from Sunderland would come out to the parishes to be a presence at these ‘Children’s Masses’. In my time, it was Sr John and Sr Berchmans, who also taught at my primary school, St Cuthbert’s. The children would sit in the front benches and lead the singing. A sister would pace the aisle encouraging us to ‘sing up’. I absolutely loved this. We’d raise the roof with ‘By the Blood that Flowed from Thee’ and ‘God of Mercy and Compassion’. You might get a smile from the pacing sister which indicated nice singing and good behaviour: this meant the world to me. I felt that I belonged. But there was a niggle. My best friend wasn’t allowed to sit with me and the other children, she sat five benches back. When I asked about it she told me that they ‘went to Mass as a family’. I was confused. Were there two models operative? Had I chosen the right one?

From time to time we’d turn up at the ‘other parish’. This was another world entirely. Fr Andrew Hannon hadn’t embraced the liturgical reforms of Vat II. He wore a biretta and had a presiding voice which I found a little intimidating. He was reported to have said; ‘No one will ever touch my sacred vessels’. So there was certainly no Offertory Procession! But there was one part of the liturgy where things were far more interactive than my own parish: the sermon. As part of the sermon Fr Hannon would throw out Catechism questions to the children and await our answers. I had no idea just how nerve wracking this must have been for the sisters. They didn’t need to worry, some of us knew those answers backwards. (It would be great to have video footage of this. Did the adults swell with pride when they saw how the Faith was being passed on? Was this the essence of the Catholic Primary School?) Despite my almost flawless repetition of the Catechism answers, there was for me an undercurrent of something related to fear as the sermon approached. This of course was quickly forgotten as we raised the roof with ‘Faith of our Fathers’, ‘Full in the Panting Heart of Rome’ and ‘O Come to the Throne of Grace’. It was very common for the benches to start to empty before we’d sung the last two verses of the hymn. People headed to the Lady Chapel to light candles. My favourite dinner lady would be the first to leave her seat. There was something comforting about seeing the lady who would bandage my knee during the week so intent on her devotions.

I think at a young age I was learning that community mattered. I was also learning that our identity as Catholic could be expressed in different ways. In the 70s this seemed to work reasonably well. I don’t remember people choosing to go to another parish if they had difficulties with the priest or style of liturgy.

Liturgical Changes

I have no memory of Mass in Latin. My first encounter with Latin came at Benediction and the singing of ‘O Salutaris’. There were no service sheets, so I copied the sounds, swept along with the mystery and beauty of it all. I was open to anything.

My first memory of a significant liturgical change came when parishes started to offer communion in the hand. I remember a feeling of being slightly quizzed by the sisters at school as to what I had decided to do. I think I had a sense that there were two ways to receive and either one was okay. I was 8 yrs old by that time and fully understood reverence. I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing anything disrespectful. My paternal grandma sometimes came to Church with us. She wore a mantilla and always received Communion on the tongue. I didn’t question this. I don’t remember there being any sense that one way was more reverent than the other. By the time I reached secondary school receiving in the hand was the unquestioned norm.

In the 70s my parents were involved in something called ‘Family Circle’. They met with other Catholic couples in the evening, discussed ‘topics’ and appeared to feast on the very best biscuits money could buy. I had equal interest in the subject of their discussions and the quality of the biscuits. It all happened after my bedtime. I never found out what they discussed. From time to time a family would host a ‘house Mass’ and the children were allowed to stay up for this. This was a huge event for me. My father’s rosewood desk became the altar and a Danish silver sugar and cream set became the cruet set. The living room was full, with children sitting on the floor and a reverence fell upon us all. The priest’s voice that filled the church on a Sunday now filled my living room. I’d hold that memory for weeks. And afterwards the children had free rein on the biscuits.

I don’t think I have ever had an experience of Eucharist that compares with that. Christ present in flesh and blood, in my sitting room, filled my 9 yr old heart. This built my Eucharistic memory. Without Vat II none of this would have been possible.