June 23, 2014

Corpus Christi and the ‘Blessed Sacrament of the Mass’

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *

Some time ago, I viewed with a small group a video by Fr. Robert Barron entitled, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Mass.” For a moment, I was taken aback by the title. Why would Fr. Barron refer to the Mass as “The Blessed Sacrament”? Surely, this terminology is used for devotions such as Benediction, Eucharistic exposition, processions, and congresses--but not for Mass.

I came to realize that Fr. Barron is, of course, quite correct in using the expression “The Blessed Sacrament of the Mass.” The exalted expression, “The Blessed Sacrament” should indeed refer primarily to the Mass, from which all Eucharistic devotions flow and to which they return.

What surprised me even more was that some members of the group--made up of liturgically well-educated and “forward-looking” Catholics--admitted rather sheepishly that they are often more attracted to Benediction than to Mass.

There is certainly something problematic in this. Benediction should always be seen as secondary to the Mass, as a prolongation of the sacrament, and as a preparation for the next Eucharistic celebration. When Benediction takes priority over Mass in popular Catholic spirituality, there is a clear and urgent need for corrective catechesis.

From further discussion, it emerged that what was attractive to those who spoke was that the style of celebration of Benediction is characterized by elements that are often missing in the celebration of Mass. The differences are as follows (I am summarizing here):

• There is often more of an atmosphere of reverence in Benediction than is found in the celebration of the Mass;

• “Traditional” music always accompanies Benediction, while much of the music at Mass nowadays is “too folksy”;

• Silence and a contemplative atmosphere accompany Benediction more that they do Mass;

• The focus in Benediction is always on the host in the monstrance, while many celebrations of Mass have distractions that scatter the mind;

• The priest has a self-effacing role in Benediction, while at Mass there are many opportunities (inappropriate, of course) for the priest to draw attention to himself—and to talk too much (explanations, improper adaptations, etc.);

• Incense is always used at Benediction, but rarely at Mass. Many people do not like incense, but the more “traditionally-minded” do;

• Benediction is usually done with more beauty and solemnity (more candles, nicer vestments, and a consciously reverent handling of holy things) than is found in the average Sunday – not mind weekday –  Mass. 

It would be spiritually unhealthy if Benediction were promoted at the expense of the Mass. But I agree with those who want to bring into the celebration of Mass many of the elements traditionally, and still today, found in Benediction.

Yet, Eucharistic devotions are part of the liturgical heritage of the Church. Perhaps, we have gone from one extreme to the other: Before Vatican II, Eucharistic devotions seemed to have had undue emphasis in the Church; but since Vatican II, these devotions have been drastically curtailed. (Indeed, we are raising a whole post-Vatican II generation which has almost no knowledge of Benediction and other Eucharistic devotions.) There is, accordingly, a need for a new practical balance in Eucharistic theology and practice.

Yesterday was the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), the occasion each year when periods of exposition, adoration, and Benediction are most common. This would be a good time in which to reflect on the practice of Eucharistic devotion – and to ask what the Church might learn from popular attitudes toward it.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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