A while back, whilst celebrating a funeral Mass down the country, I had the experience of quite a number of people presenting to receive Holy Communion, who clearly were unsure, or simply did not know, how to respond, to being presented with the Body of Christ. Some nodded, some gave a little grunt, whilst a substantial number of others responded inappropriately, with responses ranging from, ‘cheers’ to ‘sound job’ to ‘nice one’. Now the funny side of it is not lost on me. Nevertheless, I was left with a feeling of sadness. I hasten to add that, at no stage did I feel there was wilful, or calculated disrespect. No, on the contrary this was ignorance, in the purest sense of that word. They simply did not know. Perhaps some had never been part of a vibrant faith community, whilst for others it had been so long since they were in church, for it to be anything more than a vague memory. I would like to emphasise that my comments here are not meant as a judgement, but rather as an attempt to observe, learn and hopefully plot a path forward.
Recently whilst celebrating a First Holy Communion Mass I experienced one of my more difficult days on the altar. In fairness the boys themselves were excellent. Well taught, and equally well rehearsed, they showed reverence in the church and sought to carry out whatever task that had been entrusted to them with respect and dignity. Sad to say many of the adults did not show the same decorum. It was very noisy, and this was sustained. A number of adults chatted throughout the Mass. A number went in and out, presumably for a smoke. Some chewed gum. I heard one little boy plead with his Dad, ‘ Dad, please stop talking in church!’ I found it sad to see little boys, the best of children, having practiced and rehearsed their prayers and readings and not being given the courtesy of being heard. This is not to mention the overall disrespect, for both the sacred space of God’s house, and the Eucharist itself. Was all this motivated by malice, or a conscious effort to undermine the sacredness of the day? Not at all. It was essentially thoughtless, ignorant behaviour from people who are a long way from church. Yet beside that, they wanted their little boy to have his ‘big day’. Indeed as one lady put it, ‘we are entitled to that, Father’. For my part, I made several appeals for quiet and general respect, with only minimal effect. Just as I began the institution narrative, ‘On the night he was betrayed,’ I had a moment of accentuated awareness. I believe this was a nudge of the Holy Spirit. It came to me that I was damaging the Eucharist. It struck me that what we were doing was wrong. We were doing violence to what is the ‘source and summit’ of our lives together in the Lord. It left me with a profound sadness that has as yet, not quite abated.
Surely at this time of year, as we celebrate Corpus Christi, and within our parishes have our First Holy Communions, it is time to stop and take a serious look at what is happening? Perhaps there is nothing wrong with a little family celebration, a few balloons, and maybe even the bouncy castle, but do we really need the hummers and the stretch limousines? A trip to Lanzarote? A hairband that lights up? And at the end of all this, Mum is still, two years later, paying off the credit union loan. Has it not gone a little mad? Where is the emphasis? What is important? Where is Jesus in this? Is there any, even a basic understanding, of what is happening at Mass? Do the adults know, never mind the children, or do they even begin to appreciate what is going on, when the priest says, ‘The Body of Christ’, and we reply ‘Amen’?
Is it not time to end our denial and face the reality that we have entered a post – Christian era. This is the New Paganism. Surely it is time to save the Eucharist from the waves of disrespect, granted they may not be intentional, that barrage it? What I mean by this, is that wherever people feel they HAVE TO be at the Eucharist, we should free them up. We should remove all pressure or compulsion on people to take part in any Eucharist. This will mean providing both funeral and wedding ceremonies outside Eucharist, and an end to the conveyor belt religion that is evident at First Penance, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. In other words I am arguing for a much smaller, much leaner, but more vibrant Church. Once again, as often in her history, our church needs both reform and renewal.