May 15, 2012

"To bless or not to bless (during Communion) that is the question!"

Pardon the illusion to Shakespeare in the title of this post but I couldn’t resist. Listening to the radio in my car the other day I came across a discussion of this issue on a Catholic radio station.  That is, a discussion on the practice that has become rather common in the Catholic Church here in the United States, of blessing those in the Communion line who are either too young to receive Communion or adults who may come forward with hands crossed over their chest who seek to be blessed rather than receive the Eucharist, such as non-Catholic spouses and visitors.   
I have been doing this for some time as priest because the parishes I have pastored already had this practice. I see it as one of those popular pious expressions of the faithful that do occasionally arise but I have never been able to determine how this caught on.  Our Eucharistic Ministers do not “bless” as a deacon, priest or bishop might do but may hold their hand on the persons shoulder or head and say something like, “May God bless you.” The concern is that there is no specific provision for this in the directives for the Mass. Strictly speaking it probably should not be done but can/should it be done? The Communion line is for one purpose: to receive Holy Communion.
On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to me as a great offense in the necessary flow and unity of the liturgy. It is hardly a grievous scandal or obvious disruption or replacing something greater such as the sacred Scriptures.  Yet, it does add something that is not “prescribed.”  
However, if we are concerned about interruptions during the liturgy, things that distract and pull us away from the dignity of the Eucharist, then maybe we should ban crying children who throw fits or coughing adults, people who consistently come late for Mass and worse yet, always leave early after receiving Communion.
What of those who walk around the church or down the middle isle to visit the restroom during the Eucharistic prayer. Then, there is always the issue of proper dress. Shorts, blue jeans, and tank tops? The list could go on, of course, but human nature is not easily tamed. Any priest will tell you that expecting the unexpected is the norm. Such things should be addressed on some level.
The unofficial practice of blessing individuals during communion is in the same category as the practice of holding hands during the Our Father. At some point the congregation decided that the unity expressed within the Church is emphasized not just by our words but also more by physically joining hands as we all acknowledge God as our Father. Jesus told us to call God our “Abba.”  But exactly how such practices arise are not always clear. Yet, is it a simple expression of the Spirit’s presence among us? The “Sensus fidelium” (sense of the faithful) expressed in a small way?
The present English translation of the Roman Missal was long mentioned as a renewal of the liturgy.  It was felt, and in some cases rightly so, that a greater dignity and reverence was needed. We prepared carefully for that new translation.  As is necessary, certain principles of proper liturgy were explained and the guidelines and norms are given in the front part of that Missal.  Nowhere does it state that a blessing should be given to those who do not receive Holy Communion and nowhere does it mention that the people should join hands during the Our Father.
Sometimes such things are culturally based and other times they arise due to the desire of the community to feel more a part of the liturgy. Then, our Hispanic brothers and sisters often will bless themselves and kiss their hand after receiving the Eucharist. Nothing in the Missal states this is to be done but it seems to be a cultural piety.
Unity is an expression of our faith, the fruit of the Eucharist and a grace of our baptism where we are joined with Christ and his Church. Uniformity is a tougher issue.  When the Church gathers, as we do around the Lord’s altar, we recognize the diversity among us yet it is Word and Sacrament that binds us together as one with Christ and our fellow believers.   
It seems to me, the Church is calling us to unity and not uniformity or rigidity. Full, active and conscious participation (e.g. Vatican II) means exactly that. Just showing up in some passive “participation” is not enough. Those who consistently come late and leave early sadly need some serious catechesis but human nature would predict little change from this habit.  But, it is good they are here and better than not.  
To create a liturgy which breathes the presence of the Holy Spirit and brings Christ to his people in Word and Sacrament is our task. Norms and guidelines have their place and great value and they must be followed rather than have everyone “doing their own thing.”  
So, in this larger context, offering a simple blessing to a baby, young child or non-Catholic spouse in the Communion line is an acknowledgement that though we are not joined with you specifically at the Lord’s table, yet you are joined with us because of your participation in the life of Christ among us.  You are a member of the family of which your spouse is Catholic and her/his faith is something you are willing to support and participate in. This blessing is our wish for you. This blessing may also be an invitation to explore the faith more deeply and join as one with your family and that of the Church.  
The young children who are blessed, as they prepared to receive Our Lord in Communion, very much look forward to that event. They know the difference and seem to feel closer to the entire Eucharistic celebration when that great day comes for them. These unofficial blessings seem to enhance, in a simple but powerful way, the beauty of Eucharistic celebrations and the unity which Christ calls all of us to in his Church.
Some thoughts.  Your comments??