Reading one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s books in the 1980’s, I was quite struck by his reminiscences of Corpus Christi processions in Bavaria in places like Altötting and other towns. The tradition spreads into Switzerland in some places, and Fribourg where I was at university was known as L’Etat du Ciel, the State of Heaven, by its fidelity to the Corpus Christi processions in which brass bands and the many religious orders participated. There is a great feeling of joy in this manifestation of faith in this Germanic culture which is neither Protestant nor Latin.
Father Hunwicke has written a new article, but with a previous posting asking readers not to send comments. I understand him perfectly, and I too have my “secular retreats” by going sailing for several days, relying only on my boat for getting around and visiting new places of beauty and peace. I thus look forward to the Semaine du Golfe during the last week of May, when there will be times of solitude but also milling crowds of people and about 1,300 boats already registered for the gathering. I don’t do many priestly things during that week, but I have my daily Office for when the boat is at anchor, moored to a pontoon or beached.
Fr Hunwicke wrote on The Prisoner in the Tabernacle. I remember a series of lectures on Eucharistic devotion when I was up at university, and this typically post-Tridentine theme came up. Theology and liturgy have been embellished by analogy and allegory for a very long time, but the tragedy occurs when the poetic is taken literally. There has always been a difficulty when we try to explain the notion of transsubstantiation (bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass) in materialistic terms to counter the entirely conceptualist view of the Reformers. It is a Mystery of faith which cannot be understood any more than the Resurrection. In the latter mystery, the Gospel texts are bewildering. People who knew Christ in his incarnation did not recognise him after the Resurrection, until he performed a familiar ceremony like at the Last Supper of the multiplication of bread and fish. The resurrected body was of no ordinary material. It could go through closed doors. There is something we miss if we try to explain this in terms of Newtonian physics or suchlike. Perhaps quantum theory might come nearer, whilst we remain just as confused when we think about it too much.
Post-Tridentine devotion carried medieval devotion that bit further and attempted to rationalise it in Cartesian fashion, and we end up with the idea of a “little Jesus” shut up in a little box on or above the altar. What does he do all day lying in the bottom of the ciborium, veiled, and then in a veiled tabernacle? The idea becomes absurd and something people grow out of when they stop believing in Santa Claus!
In the 1980’s, I investigated Orthodoxy to some extent, and was quite surprised to know that they reserve the sacred Species on the altar in a little pyx, but they do not act in a particular way towards the Blessed Sacrament – whilst they teach the Real Presence like we western Catholics do too.
Methods of reserving the Blessed Sacrament have changed over the centuries. The tabernacle only became standard from the Renaissance and Tridentine era, mainly for the sake of security: to prevent the Blessed Sacrament being stolen by people with evil intentions. Two other methods have existed in northern Europe, the Sakramentshaus in Germany, a tabernacle set not on the altar but on the Gospel side. The aumbry of middle-of-the-road Anglican churches is certainly inspired by these beautiful structures in Germany.
In France, England and elsewhere, we had the hanging pyx, which I use in my own chapel. It is raised and lowered by a simple counterweight mechanism, or simply by means of a “halyard” and pulleys inspired by rigging on a boat. The tabernacle is practical for when constant access is needed to take Communion to the sick or give an undetermined number of hosts to the faithful at Mass.
I have always been opposed to Mass facing the people, but Fr Hunwicke mentions this in his article. When then is done with the Blessed Sacrament? In a dedicated chapel behind the high altar or in a side chapel like in cathedrals? The hanging pyx directly over the free-standing altar brings the Blessed Sacrament into prominence, and is independent of which way the priest is facing. I think this has been done in a few monasteries. I don’t like versus populum, but such an arrangement would be coherent and would focus the celebration away from the interchange between the priest and people facing each other. Pope Benedict XVI emphasised the placing of a cross at the centre of the altar even when the celebration was facing the people. It restores a certain notion of orientation.
I would tend to something between the “materialistic” devotion to the Blessed Sacrament of Roman Catholicism over the past five centuries and the seeming indifferent aloofness of eastern Orthodox practice. In the Use of Sarum, genuflections are much rarer, and the reverence is usually expressed by a profound bow as often done in monasteries. Naturally the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the church will bring us to conduct ourselves accordingly and not engage in profane chatter.
I have already written about the hanging pyx.