Today the Latin Church celebrates the solemnity of Corpus Christi to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist.
Although the Seraphic Father never experienced this feast, he and his brothers certainly had a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist during his lifetime. In fact, St. Francis focused his first Admonition on the Holy Eucharist, professing that
the Sacrament of the Body of Christ which is sanctified by the word of the Lord upon the altar by the hands of the priest in the form of bread and wine […] is really the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Francis emphasized that the Holy Eucharist shows the Lord’s great humility and simplicity, the same that He showed in the Incarnation:
Behold daily He humbles Himself as when from His “royal throne” He came into the womb of the Virgin; daily He Himself comes to us with like humility; daily He descends from the bosom of His Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest.
The awe inspired by the great love of the Word made Flesh, united to the awareness that in this world we can see nothing corporally of Christ except the Holy Eucharist (Testament) moves us to revere the Real Presence and, by association to show respect for “the chalices, corporals, ornaments of the altar, and all that pertain to the Sacrifice“. These, Francis reminds, us, must be held as precious (Letter to all the Custodes).
In the Latin Church, such reverence was expressed in ways that were typically European, according to the circumstances. Customary gestures arose, some of which acquired meaning, and others to which meaning began to be attributed.
The latter revealed a weakness: the meaning of reverence appeared from the outside in. One had to ask “Why?” in order to be told “it is a sign of reverence“.
Other customary gestures, however, allowed the action to speak for itself. Consider for instance the elevation after the consecration, a late medieval introduction intended to show the consecrated host to the people. When St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, prior to her conversion from Anglicanism, witnessed this for the first time, she was well aware of what was being done (since it existed in the Anglican rite), but the awe that accompanied it was what she perceived, an awe sparked by the Catholic belief in the Real Presence. This, and not the gesture per se, would eventually lead her to the Eucharist. Reverence, then, can be experienced or defined.
The Church, rather than rigidly defining reverence, mediates its experience by pointing to the value of that which is sacred. This she does in a twofold manner: expressing dismay when that which is sacred is treated carelessly, and showing forth the different degrees of reverence due to the sacred.
As an example of the former, the Church states that “sacred objects, which are designated for divine worship by dedication or blessing…are not to be employed for profane or inappropriate use” (CIC 1171), and that they be made of materials “truly noble in the common estimation within a given region, [being] reprobated…any practice of using…common vessels…or which are mere containers” (RS 117).
As an example of showing the different degrees of reverence that are due, consider the chalice. The minor clerics handled the empty chalice. The subdeacon handed the filled chalice to the deacon before consecration. The priest handled the consecrated chalice.
When for practical reasons laymen replaced the ministry of the minor orders and subdiaconate, the lay ministers handled the empty chalice, the deacon poured wine into the chalice and handed it to the priest, and the priest consecrated.
When order is restored, confusion disappears and once more reverence becomes visible.
If, however, we do not let reverence speak for itself, but rather focus on rigidly defining it, we risk embracing two imperfect mindsets.
In the first of these, we may apply gestures that express reverence in situations that do not call for it, which leads to an over-generalization or over-use of such gestures, so that eventually they lose their reverent meaning and become “common”.
An example of this is the practice of genuflection. In the Latin Church, genuflection became a common sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament. Eventually, genuflections became common throughout the liturgy even when the Blessed Sacrament is neither present on the altar, nor reserved in the Tabernacle. This begs the question: “Why genuflect?” To which the answer comes: “As a sign of reverence“. This led to confusion, as the distinction between reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament and respect due to a sacred object (namely, the altar) became unclear. This of course can lead to such gestures being eventually discarded because they are no longer associated with the original context and thus perceived as superfluous repetition.
The second of these mindsets, one may begin to perceive the absence of certain gestures as a “lack of reverence”, or the presence of certain gestures as a “need”, given our sinfulness or even “uncleanliness”.
Consider, for instance, the usage of gloves by altar servers. When the law of the Latin Church reserved, so to speak, the handling of the sacred vessels to the minor clerics, this came neither from divine revelation nor because of an intrinsic spiritual meaning. Certainly it was not the Church’s mindset that the laity was “unworthy because unholy”. It was done for very practical reasons. Furthermore, laymen and religious often functioned as sacristan. At times they handled the vessels with a piece of cloth, because it was fairly easy to transfer grease and dirt from their hands to the vessels.
Yet by the 19th Century we read that if the sacristan is a layman rather than a minor cleric, “it is at least becoming that a veil be used in handling the chalice and the paten” (Collectio Rerum Liturgicarum). Statements such as these were understood in the negative, as implying that the gesture of a lay man or woman handling the chalice with bare hands is a lack of reverence, because the laity are somewhat “unclean”, hence the need to “restrict” them outside of the sacristy and to grant clerics alone the “privilege”of handling the sacred vessels. This, of course, confuses the way the Church intended to bring order and distorts the meaning of reverence. Even the previous Code of Canon Law stated that the sacred vessels could be handled by either the clerics or those who had their custody, including laity and religious (CIC/1917 1306), where the word “laity” made no distinction between male and female .
St. Therese of Lisieux as sacristan
As for the honor due to the clergy, the Seraphic Father reminds us that it is “on account of their office and administration of the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which they sacrifice on the altar and receive and administer to others” (Letter to all the Faithful). That is to say: we honor them because they are the ministers of the Eucharist; they are not the ministers of the Eucharist because of their holiness.
In brief: this mindset, which focuses on our sinfulness alone, fails to acknowledge the Incarnation. Yet, it can still be found today, even when minor orders are no longer present in the Latin Church (with a few exceptions) and their functions are performed by the laity.
To avoid the two slippery slopes that we have described, we should bear in mind that the Church does not rigidly define reverence, but rather orders roles and gestures according to the need. Again, when order is restored, confusion disappears and once more reverence becomes visible.
Consequently, the focus shifts from our sinfulness and unworthiness to the Incarnation. At that moment, the Word becomes Flesh and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity assumes our nature, breaking into human history and beginning the journey towards our redemption.
True reverence has its roots in the Incarnation and naturally returns to it. We reverence Our Lord Jesus Christ when we acknowledge Him as true God and true man, hence becoming aware of who He is, our very brother, and of who we are in relationship to Him, children of the Most High.
Br. Bernardo di Carmine
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