On the Power, Misuse & Neglect of Liturgical Symbolism

May 2000By Noel J. Augustyn

Noel J. Augustyn is a lawyer living in Maryland.

“The institution that understands the power of symbols best is the Catholic Church.” This statement, which I heard over thirty years ago in a sociology class in an Ivy League college, seemed remarkable at the time. The professor making it was Jewish — and it was greeted with good-natured hisses by the students — mostly cradle-Protestants who presumably saw the Church as an instrument of oppression amid Age of Aquarius liberation. The statement remained in my mind, and it seems worth revisiting now, decades later. For I wonder if it could be made today. In their apparently unending efforts to make the Church “relevant” to the “modern” world, her shepherds in recent years have been showing a diminished understanding of how the Church’s traditional symbols speak to the heart of the human condition, and they have often traded the power of liturgical symbols for what at some times seems nothing more than poorly followed rules of procedure for a town meeting, and for what at other times is nothing at all. The impoverishment of Catholic symbols has led to a desacralization of Catholic life.

The most serious example is also the most laden with irony: The diminution of symbols has notably detracted from the meaning of what is far more than a symbol — namely, the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Recently the cardinal archbishop of an east coast archdiocese expressed his chagrin upon learning that most Catholics in the U.S. either do not understand or do not believe in the Real Presence. The cardinal, however, acknowledged no responsibility for the role he and his fellow bishops have played in overseeing the degradation and elimination of certain liturgical symbols (and the addition of others) that have promoted this condition of ignorance and disbelief. There is a serious relationship between belief in the Eucharist and the symbolic messages communicated in the course of its celebration. And those messages are communicated — not unlike the messages sent by the set and costumed actors on a theater stage — primarily in and from the sanctuary.

Not so long ago, the only people in the sanctuary at Sunday Mass were the priest and the altar boys and, at the rare Solemn High Mass, two other priests functioning as deacons. The focus on the most important action taking place there — the Eucharist — was clear. Today, however, priests are also joined in the sanctuary on Sunday and even weekdays by the choir, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. The new symbolism now is similarly but misguidedly powerful: The functions performed by each “minister” can be easily if mistakenly seen as equally important. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist consecrated by an ordained priest, then, is readily if wrongly viewed as no different from His presence in the words read or in the songs sung by laity.

The effects of the misuse of other symbols surrounding the Eucharist are even more direct and deleterious: the absence or removal of communion rails; reception of the Eucharist while standing rather than kneeling; Communion-in-the-hand; the distraction of the horribly misplaced Sign of Peace; the regular use of lay Eucharistic ministers even when communicants are few; the moving of the Tabernacle, in even the smallest churches, away from a central location; the virtual disappearance of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; the reduction of the altar to about the size of a card table. The theology justifying all these practices might be legitimate, but to the 99.44 percent of God’s pure people not theologically schooled, a definite — perhaps unintended — message has been communicated about the meaning (or lack thereof) of the Eucharist.

You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.

Back to May 2000 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
I think this article is dead on. I've been saying this for years, to no avail. As a Pre-V2 Catholic, and now a deacon, I remember the "sense of the sacred" that used to prevail in every Catholic Church. Even the use of Latin gave a special sense to our worship then. Many no doubt will disagree with me but I miss it. I still have my old missal with the English translations right next to the Latin, so we had no problem knowing what was said if we really wanted to. I'll understand why so many people from that era today, seem to think it's something they would hate to go back to. I was a boy but had no problem knowing what was going on.
There was also a "sacred silence" that fell over the congregation at the moment of consecration and time was spent in thanksgiving after communion and after the mass was over too. Nowadays, you'll get trampled with people leaving to beat the priest out the door during the recessional .
I wanted my two sons to experience the Church that I knew as a boy and took them downtown in Houston to a Church that I knew still offered the Latin mass and still had the old décor, with statues and a communion rail and the whole package that I'd grown up with. They were amazed at the stained glass and vigil candles (not phony electric light ones) and my eldest son, even though he had not understood a word of the Latin used in the mass, remarked "why don't we change churches dad, --I love this". Why I asked? His reply was , "it just seemed holier than our church".
When I recently mentioned a longing for a return to the "old communion rail" and the elimination of Eucharistic Ministers at the altar, I got a "humph" from the priest I was talking to. I quickly dropped the subject sensing that he didn't agree. Communion in the hand may sound good may sound good on the surface but it has definitely taken away from a sense of the divine that comes when one kneels and has the priest or deacon present the Body and Blood of Christ to the recipient--on the tongue. And from a practical position, I'll wager that a single priest and altar boy distributing communion would be far more efficient than any eight Eucharistic ministers.
Posted by: Deacon Steve
February 06, 2013 04:56 PM EST
Add a comment