Communion from the Tabernacle - 17th August 2014

When I attended a summer school in liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, I was delighted to do a course presented by Robert Taft, an Eastern-rite Jesuit whose book Beyond East and West is my “bible” of information about the liturgical year.

Fr Taft is Professor-emeritus at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, serves as Consultor for Liturgy of the Vatican Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and is a member of several Vatican commissions and other editorial and advisory boards.

He is a prolific writer, the bibliography of his publications in English, French, and Italian comprising over 800 titles. His writings have been translated into nineteen different languages.

I was delighted therefore to discover that the Pray Tell blog has included Robert Taft in a new series of interviews being conducted with liturgical leaders. One of the ten interview questions is “Three things to fix the liturgy — what would they be?” Fr Taft’s reply is instructive.

“The liturgy doesn’t need fixing. What needs fixing are the celebrating clergy. What I have often said of my own Jesuit confreres applies here too: all Jesuits have studied theology, but not all of them learned theology—i.e., learned how to think theologically. A classic instance is the question of the clergy’s refusal to cease giving communion from the reserved sacrament in the tabernacle despite the Church’s constant exhortations and orders to do so. That is not because the clergy are disobedient, but because they are theologically and liturgically ignorant, as I have tried to show in an article I had published in Worship recently.”

The article he refers to appeared in the liturgy journal Worship in January and is entitled “Communion from the Tabernacle – A Liturgico-Theological Oxymoron”.

Taft uses strong – even provocative - language, but it reflects Taft’s deep-seated and understandable concern about the all-too-common practice of hosts being distributed from the tabernacle at Mass.

Communion from the tabernacle is an issue I have addressed several times in this column but I get the impression that many people think that I am just being a typical “liturgical terrorist” wasting time over inconsequential rubrics. I am delighted to have Robert Taft on my side in this battle!

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says: “It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass … so that even by means of the signs Communion will stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated.” (# 85)

Despite this, it is not uncommon to see a minister go to the tabernacle during the “Lamb of God” and place on the altar a ciborium of hosts which are distributed during Communion.

The dynamic of the Eucharist is one continuous movement. In the procession of gifts, the faithful present the bread and wine for the sacrifice, along with the gift of their lives, to be blessed by God and then received back as the Body and Blood of Christ when they come forward in procession for Holy Communion.

To be fed with the Body of Christ from the tabernacle and not from what was consecrated at the Mass being celebrated breaks the connection between sacrifice and Communion. There can be no Communion without sacrifice, and this is symbolised most clearly when we receive Communion from what we ourselves have offered.

Elizabeth Harrington