On Liturgical Change

The Communion fast and the 'smells and bells' of Mass -- Part 7


Faith The Papacy

Everyone — whether priest, bishop, or layperson — has ideas on how to change the liturgy. If I had my druthers, I would make the following changes, but these changes are neither mine to make nor a priest’s to make:

I’ll add one more thought, especially in light of recent surveys that show that a high percentage of Catholics who attend Sunday Mass regularly (“practicing Catholics”) do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The current rule on fasting before reception of Communion is abstinence from food and drink for one hour before Communion. I respectfully assert that this is not a fast. For a one-hour Sunday Mass, it merely requires refraining from eating or drinking in the 15 minutes before arrival at the church. That is, there is no eating or drinking (or chewing gum) while getting dressed or traveling to the church and during the 45 minutes of Mass prior to reception of Communion. Furthermore, this non-fast encourages reception of Communion by those not in a state of grace. Why? Because if those not in a state of grace sit in the pew rather than receive Communion, they cannot save face by saying they broke the fast. It is almost impossible to break the fast. I would change the rule so that, at minimum, rather than the “fast” starting one hour before the reception of Communion, the fast would start one hour before the Mass is scheduled to begin.


I give thanks for the prayers and the liturgies of the Catholic Church, that allow me to raise my heart and mind to God. I think we should all be thankful. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger made so clear in his 2000 book The Spirit of the Liturgy, the Mass is not about the priest or about us, but about God and His relationship with us.

The Church worships using every human sense. Some refer to this in shorthand as “smells and bells.” The Church’s liturgies do not employ just the spoken word, any more than a theatrical production employs only the spoken word. The liturgy employs procession, pace, synchronization, stage-blocking, gesture (open hands, kissing the altar, Sign of the Cross over the people and the gifts, raising the Book of Gospels, elevating the Host and chalice), posture (lying prostrate, kneeling, bowing, genuflecting, standing, sitting), color (altar cloth, vestments, chalice veil in seven colors: black, white, red, violet, green, rose, and gold), texture (fabric, metal, wood, stone), sacred table (altar), tabernacle, sacred clothes (vestments), sacred space (sanctuary), sacred persons (priests), sacred chairs, smells (candlewax, incense), unlit candles (blessing of the throat), sound (voice, bells, musical instruments, hymns), sculptures (crucifixes with corpus, statues), patens, paintings, stained glass windows, icons, Stations of the Cross, water (offertory, baptisms, Maundy Thursday’s Washing of the Feet), wine (offertory), bread (offertory), fire (incense, candles, especially the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil), plants (palms for Palm Sunday, Christmas trees, floral arrangements). In addition to all this, there are the churches in which we worship.

I give thanks for it all.

I give thanks for the 50-plus years since the 1969 Apostolic Constitution of Pope St. Paul VI approved the celebration of Mass in the vernacular, and for the full array of his liturgical reforms. And I give thanks for Pope St. John Paul II’s and Pope Benedict’s permissions to allow the celebration of Mass in the Extraordinary Form. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord’” (Ps. 122:1).


******For Part 6 in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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