Changes in the reception of Communion
from a Sociological perspective

From a purely sociological standpoint, the following quotation was written by Paul Williams, a lecturer in Religious Studies in an American University (as of 1980):

"The doctrine of transubstantiation remained intact. Yet, it no longer meant the same. Prior to the liturgical reform, this doctrine was dramatized by the repetitive stress placed on the ineffable sacredness of the Host. For in the wafer raised by the priest to the ringing of bells and the beating of breasts was the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the spotless Victim that could not be touched by unconsecrated hands. A great part of the Tridentine liturgy assumed the form of progressive obeisance to a thing untouchable. A priest could raise the Host only with his canonical digits - the thumb and first finger - which had been consecrated for the purpose. After consecrating the bread, the priest had to keep his canonicals joined as he performed the other necessary functions. The paten and chalice, for example, had to be lifted with the third and fourth fingers.

Moreover, the priest constantly had to sweep his paten for unseen specks of the sacred bread. For each part was the whole, each crumb a communion in itself. When the priest administered communion to the faithful at the altar rail he was always accompanied by an altar boy who carried a special communion catcher - another paten, the one with a long handle. The acolyte carefully placed the catcher under the chin of each receiver the prevent the catastrophe of Christ falling from someone's tongue to the floor. The thin wafers - so difficult to swallow - always stuck to the roof of the mouth. And it would be detestable - an unthinkable - sacrilege to scrape it off with one's finger.

But with the sacramental changes, Catholics were permitted to do the unspeakable. Suddenly, in many progressive parishes, the sacred Body was placed in their unholy hands. Worse yet, in some instances it was even administered by laymen who dipped their unholy fingers into the sacred chalice. Though they cringed, horrified Catholics were told that it was permissible to chew it, to receive it standing instead of kneeling, even to drink from the chalice. Was Christ as truly present in the tangible bread as He had been in the untouchable wafer? Was this the same Body of Christ that they were allowed to chew?

No, the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was never officially changed. But psychologically it never meant the same. The change in practice had produced a change in perspective. The sacred no longer seemed as sacred as it once was. Even the spotless Host had been sullied by human hands.

But these changes were not meant for Catholics. They were enacted for the sake of ecumenism. They were designed to dissolve the differences between Christians "so they might be one." By dissolving these differences, the Church abrogated its sociological role and turned from its children. "We're all the same anyhow," they were told, "we're all brothers in Christ." But hadn't they been told they were different? Hadn't they been assured that they alone were members of the one true Church? Suddenly, the sheep were being protestanized before they could bleat in protest. The Latin rite was sacked and replaced by a modern, mundane liturgy that could not offend the "separated brethren." With the new Mass, confused Catholics were instructed to sing Protestant hymns and to recite the once unspeakable Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer. Moreover, the priests and bishops who had once forbidden them to participate in non-Catholic services now began to take a leading role in such services. The Church, with its banners and banjoes, was standing on its head.

They had identified themselves by their religion. They were Catholics - that was what they were, who they were. Yet they could no longer identify themselves with Catholicism. For the changing Church was no longer their Church. It was no longer the Church of their fathers and forefathers. And so, many began to turn from the Church as it had turned from them. In 1965, 80 per cent of the Catholics in America attended Mass on a regular basis. Ten years later - in 1975, the number of regular attendees had dropped to less than 50 per cent."

Quoted in "Pope Paul's New Mass" by Michael Davies, pages 124-125.

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Last modified 15th April, 1997, by David Joyce.