While I am sure it is not true at your parish, most Masses I participate in tend come apart at the communion rite. A liturgy can be going along just great, and then the wheels fall off the liturgical bus as we begin the Lord’s Prayer.
Does this sound familiar for your parish?
During the communion rite — which begins with the Lord’s Prayer and concludes with the prayer after communion — some (many?) of these things happen in most parishes:
- The presider invites everyone to join hands for the Lord’s Prayer, asking worshipers to step into the aisles to do so.
- The presider invites all the children to surround him at the altar for the Lord’s Prayer.
- The sign of peace becomes an extended greeting and catching-up with friends, sometimes led by the presider who tries to shake hands with as many parishioners as possible.
- The fraction rite is accompanied by a new rite that I call the Purelling of hands. Communion ministers form a line in front of the Purell bottle and make a great show of squirting, rubbing, and air-drying their hands.
- At the same time, the deacon or one of the communion ministers retrieves from the tabernacle reserved hosts consecrated for a different Mass.
- The presider consumes the body and blood of Christ in silence.
- Then communion ministers receive the body and blood of Christ in silence. In some communities, the presider is the sole minister of both elements to the communion ministers, even if the number of ministers is large.
- All this time, the choir has been waiting patiently at the foot of the sanctuary to receive communion themselves.
- Once they have all received, returned to the music area, and situated themselves, the song during communion begins. The first three pews have by now been to communion and have returned to their seats.
- Or, the choir remains in place and goes to communion last, as we all either watch them in silence or bow our heads for a prayerful time alone with Jesus.
- As the faithful return to their pews, they kneel in silence. Some will eventually resume singing the song during communion, but most do not.
- In some parishes, the presider remains seated for the prayer after communion.
- In most parishes, an extensive number of announcements follow. Or on, occasion, these precede the prayer after communion, changing its function to “prayer after announcements.”
What does active participation really look like?
Parishes that do a good job for most of the liturgy often find themselves unable to follow the rubrics and good liturgical form when it comes to the communion rite. I don’t know for sure why this is, but I have a hunch. The major paradigm shift implemented by the Second Vatican Council is that the mission of the church requires the active participation of all of the baptized. This is paramount in the liturgy. The bishops at the council said that in the reform of the liturgy, “full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14).Communion is communion with Jesus, for sure. And in this moment, Jesus is manifest as the entire ecclesia — the church. This is especially true at communion time when the church comes forward to share in the body and blood of Christ. Click To Tweet
Overall, that aim seems to be the goal in most parishes on Sunday — except when it comes to communion. Just by observing what actually happens, it seems that aim in most parishes is for communion to be a moment of personal time with Jesus. Anything that would disturb that personal time is sublimated.
However, the time of highest participation, the moment when we should be most active as a community is communion. It’s in the name! Communion is communion with Jesus, for sure. And in this moment, Jesus is manifest as the entire ecclesia — the church. This is especially true at communion time when the church comes forward to share in the body and blood of Christ. As St. Augustine told his neophytes, we become what we eat.
11 Suggestions for Celebrating Communion
And so, the entire communion rite should build to the moment of climax when we, as church, come to the table and share in the fruits of the celebration. With that goal in mind, here are some suggestions for making the communion rite a time of full, conscious, and active participation of the assembly.
- The rubrics call for standing throughout the entire communion rite with the exception of, in the United States, kneeling after the Lamb of God. With the bishop’s permission, worshipers may remain standing after the Lamb of God.
- There is no mention in the rubrics of joining hands for the Lord’s Prayer. Some people argue that we should do so as a sign of unity. However, remember that we are building to a climax. The climactic moment of unity is when we join together in communion.
- There is also no mention of calling the children forward for the Lord’s Prayer. You could argue that it isn’t prohibited either. But it is a distraction. A cute distraction, I’ll grant you. And maybe good for the children’s self-esteem and sense of belonging. These are important values that we should attend to. But not at this point in the liturgy.
- The sign of peace is a preparation for communion. It is not the moment of receiving communion. As such it should be shared only with those nearest to us (see GIRM 82).
- This sign of peace is also not a moment for sanitizing hands. If you are truly concerned about germs, supply the communion ministers with travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer and tell them to use it before leaving their pews.
- Nor is this the time to retrieve the reserved sacrament from the tabernacle. The rubrics tell us that the faithful are to receive elements (both bread and wine) that are consecrated at the Mass they celebrate. Why is this important? It is a strong sign of communion and participation in the sacrifice actually celebrated (see GIRM 85).
- The song during communion begins immediately as the priest is receiving communion. Why is this important? Because to do so expresses “the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices” (GIRM 86). We do not wait for the presider to finish communion. We do not wait for the communion ministers and the musicians to receive. We begin singing immediately as the priest begins receiving. Practical arguments as to why this won’t work pale when held up against the huge spiritual benefit of enabling the assembly to participate in communion with their singing the moment communion begins. Communion is what the entire Mass has been building towards! We need to be singing the moment it happens.
- For the same reason, the entire assembly should be standing (and singing) for the entire action of sharing in communion. That means that as soon as the priest begins receiving communion we are all standing (and signing). And we remain standing until the very last person has received. Many of us are used to returning to our pew to kneel in private prayer after sharing in communion. This is akin to leaving the table at Thanksgiving after we’ve finished eating, even if the rest of the family hasn’t. This moment of communion — and unity of the entire body — is paramount. We need to signify our communion with one another by continuing to stand (and sing) throughout the entire action of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.
- Obviously, if we are going to be singing from the moment the presider begins to receive communion until the very last person has received, the assembly will need musical support. The best way to accomplish this is for one or two members of the music ministry to go to communion in a round-robin fashion during the singing while the rest of the musicians continue to support the signing of the assembly. I’m sure there are sound arguments for why this impractical. And again, they all pale in contrast to the huge spiritual benefit of enabling the assembly to participate in communion with their singing throughout the entire action.
- The prayer after communion is always prayed standing. It is incomprehensible to sit for this prayer. Most parishes do stand, but a number of liturgies I’ve participated in had us sitting. I don’t know why.
- In my first job as a parish liturgist, the pastor was super-strict about the deadline for bulletin announcements. If you didn’t get your announcement into the bulletin on time, there was zero option for having it announced during Mass. And any announcement that was not time-sensitive did not get announced at Mass. For example, the pancake breakfast immediately after Mass could be announced (if it was also in the bulletin). Any events happening Monday through Saturday, however, would not be announced at Mass. Parishioners were reminded to read the bulletin. I have never since experienced a Sunday Mass that followed the rubric of “brief announcements, should they be necessary” (GIRM 90).
Ritual Shapes Us
I know this can all seem nit-picky. It is not. The way we celebrate the communion rite shapes us and shapes our children about the meaning of communion. While many parishes take great care with the rest of the Mass, they tend to allow the communion rite to devolve into a time of personal devotion.
Communion is the highpoint of our participation in the liturgy and in the church. It is the time when we are both really and symbolically in union with Christ and with one another as the Body of Christ. Everything we do in the celebration of that reality should reflect that powerful mystery.