Sunday, January 31, 2016

Communion on Good Friday? EDITED

"You know, Rad Trad," said my young conversant, "I think if we were on Pius XII's liturgical reform committee that we would have said 'Ya know, guys, we aren't going to change everything. We're just going to do some reasonable things like Communion for everyone on Good—'"

"NO!" I corrected him in his sinfulness.


"No! No Communion on Good Friday! It's one of the worst features of the Pacellian novelties."

"But, I don't see what's wrong with it. Was not the restriction of Communion to the priest during Mass one of the dumb things in the pre-Vatican II Church?"

"Perhaps, but this matter bears no semblance to that very real defect. The reservation on Communion to the priest on Good Friday," I continued, "is the Roman theology of the Real Presence made true on for the death of the Lord. Just as we have the Real Presence so on this one day we have a Real Loss."

"Huh," said the aspiring liturgist. He was at a loss. "I hadn't thought of it that way."

While the term "Real Presence" derives from medieval Latin theology, its meaning—that the elements on the altar are truly the Body and Blood of the Lord, not representations—is a common element of all Apostolic Churches and can be traced to the Apostolic Fathers and St. Paul himself. The Roman Church held a uniquely high view of the Eucharist as a Sacrament. In interpersonal exchanges with Eastern priests, Catholic and Orthodox, I have found they commonly deride the static view of the Eucharist that has surfaced in the Western Church. "Christ gave the Apostles the Eucharist within the context of a meal, which suggests to me that it is something to be eaten, not stared at. We in the Byzantine tradition don't play with our food." The initial irreverence of this comment caught me off guard, but eventually caused me to consider that the Roman view of the Eucharist was once far more dynamic that it has ever been in the Eastern Churches, but is now more static that any oriental Church has known.

Before monstrances and private receptions on Communion, the Roman Eucharistic praxis saw the presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the altar as perpetuating His very real place on earth. In his second sermon on the Ascension of the Lord, St. Leo the Great preached that "that which till then was visible of our Redeemer was changed into a sacramental presence, and that faith might be more excellent and stronger, sight gave way to doctrine, the authority of which was to be accepted by believing hearts enlightened with rays from above." Laurence Hemming connects the Roman Eucharistic theology with the liturgy of the Ascension, when the Paschal candle is extinguished after the Gospel and the remaining candles in the church are lit from the fire, diffusing Christ's light from one source to many places; similarly, the Pope used to send fragments of the Eucharist from his Masses to other parishes of Rome to emphasize the Communion of the bishop with the city and clergy; perhaps most shocking to modern readers is that it was common practice for believers to bring Holy Communion home in a muslin bag and consume it prior to family supper, bringing Christ's presence from the altar to the Christian's home.

The middle ages witnessed a shift in liturgical action, not necessarily one in outlook. Medieval piety valued stillness, shocking the believer, staring at the presence of God before him. Out of this was born the elevation of the consecrated elements during the Canon of the Mass. Perhaps a more dynamic development was that of processions, most apparent in the Norman liturgical family during Holy Week. In Sarum the Eucharist was carrying by the priest, presumably in a pyx, during the Palm Sunday procession; in spiritual eyes Christ's refusal of entry into Jerusalem and triumphant crossing through the door truly was relived; similarly, a host was buried in the sepulcher after the corpus was deposed from the crucifix on Good Friday only to be removed and placed back in the tabernacle for the Resurrection. 

The Mass of the Presanctified fits into this story. One Good Friday no one save the celebrant has anything to do with Communion. In the Holy Temple Christ's Real Presence vanishes. In practice some hosts would be reserved in case of emergency last rites, usually in the rectory or in a side chapel in the church; in these cases, however, no reverence is traditionally rendered to the Sacrament until Pascha.

I know of a few Masses of the Presanctified according to the pre-Pius XII rite that have taken place in recent years and more that will take place this year. In almost all of them Communion will be given, not because the priest thinks it a necessary change, but because if the laity do not receive they may complain to the bishop. This is unfortunate, but, for now, a very necessary accommodation. Perhaps one day we can return to the liturgical theology of the Real Presence and in turn realize the Real Loss on Good Friday.


Since a few commentators below have questioned the significance of reserving Communion to the priest during a service that does not involve the consecration of the elements, I am compelled to offer some perspective.

The Presanctified rite is traditionally attributed to St. Gregory the Great, whose papacy ended at the beginning of the 7th century. The Byzantine rite continues to call their vesperal Presanctified service the "Liturgy of St. Gregory" and invokes him with the liturgical patron at the dismissal blessing. While the Greek rite imitates conventional Byzantine vespers and affixes the Communion service from the Divine Liturgy, the Roman rite retains the primitive Roman ordo Missae and suffixes it with an unceremonial vespers. Given that at the time the Office was the daily opus Dei and Mass was restricted to Sundays and feasts, the insertion of this para-Eucharistic service is quite significant. In that age the celebration of the Eucharist solemnized the day's liturgical observation. Renewing that practice on Good Friday without the consecration was only fitting, adding the highest act of solemnity the Church knows while deferring a renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary in reverence to the fact it took place on that day. As a "Mass," the celebrant must consume the sacrifice, or whatever role inquirers would like assign the Sacrament in the context of this service. 

The exclusion of the faithful from Communion on this day feels quite natural for all the reasons highlighted above. I am unaware of any Eastern rites that communicate the faithful or clergy on Good Friday; the Byzantine tradition certainly does not. Indeed, on this day to know that the sacrifice has transpired and that the victim can no longer be reached only brings us closer to Calvary.

Perhaps the initial Presanctified Mass included Communion for the attending clergy and laity. Its Byzantine companion communicates the faithful during its Lenten celebrations. In the Latin Church, general Communion vanished in the Middle Ages as people shrank in fear of unworthy reception. I would be interested to know what specific medieval books suggest Communion of the faithful on Good Friday, when it likely was not distributed on most Sundays (Sarum makes no mention, Roman books did not indicated Communion of the faithful until 1960); Communion was given as a practice, not as a rubric; when it was given, it could be given within or outside of Mass. Local French rites restored Communion of the faithful during the baroque era and make no mention of Communion of the clergy or laity on Good Friday. It seems contrary to the instinct the Church developed in remembering the death of Our Savior on the Cross.

As a last note, while we looks back on the Mass of the Presanctified and say that there was no consecration, many in the Middle Ages piously believed that the mixing of the Host with wine effected a consecration, something many Greek Christians still believe. The prevailing Latin and Slavic views are decidedly against this interpretation, but that does not change the fact that the Presanctified Mass and the faithful's reception of it may have been influenced by this perspective. As a "Mass" celebrated by a priest with a consecration, the celebrant must consume the sacrifice. 

This is one instance where the received tradition should be taken with reverence and not subjected to excessive rationalization against our interpretation of what may or may not have been done originally in different contexts.


  1. We're taking a gradual phase-out approach; the war of ideas has already been won. Last year, we left Communion for the faithful as is per the 1956 rite following the Celebrant's Communion in the otherwise intact pre-55 rite. This year, the rite will definitively end at the Celebrant's Communion, the ministers will retire to the sacristy, and then there will be an extra-liturgical distribution of Communion whilst Vespers are chanted. I'm hoping to get at least all the clergy and servers to lead by example and refrain from Communion.

    1. John, you & Mater Ecclesiae would know the answer: what does canon law have to say? Obviously the Pacellian rites and the Pauline rites allow for Holy Communion. But something outside of those must govern distribution, since the sick may receive on Good Friday, but only the dying can on Holy Saturday. I don’t want to ever do the ancient rite with Holy Communion attached, but I need to have a good reason to do so, and evidentally the parish feels comfortable distributing Holy Communion outside of the Mass of the pre-sanctified/solemn liturgical action.

    2. It's a Rad Trad said, people would be in hysteria. It's a necessary evil/pastoral concession that will take time to rectify. Fr. P has not been shy about driving home the fact that the one does not come to Mass in general in order to receive Communion. By moving the distribution out of the rite (with at least a five minute intermission), it keeps the rite intact.

  2. It is interesting how the elevation of the Body and Blood during consecration managed to "minimize" the elevation at the end of the Canon.

  3. If one wants to explain the practice by introducing a concept of "Real Loss" then why should the celebrant receive Communion, especially, since the Consecration does not take place? By the way, how and when this practice started? There are late medieval Missals (15 cent.) where the rubrics do foresee the Communion of faithful on Good Friday.

  4. I was thinking in the same vein as Pulex; why *any* communion?

    1. This might be worth checking out. I wonder what the norm was in Good Friday Rituals (Greek, Roman, Coptic, etc.) for the first 1500 years. It would be interesting to see if and when the norms changed at any given point.

    2. Here is what the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Good Friday stated: "At present [1909] the celebrant alone communicates, but it appears from the old Roman Ordines that formerly all present communicated (Martene, III, 367)."

  5. On the Good Friday Communion. An early XV century Missal used in the cathedral of Riga has a rubric: "Pax Di non dicitur, neque Agnus Dei cantatur, nec Pax datur. Et sic communicent prelatus & omnes qui voluerint.Vespere submisse dicitur." The context implies that it is not communion 'outside Mass'.

    On the alleged 'consecration' by putting a piece of the Host in wine. It seems that there was such a view, as well as attempts to correct it. In the same Missal a rubric states: "Tunc partita hostia unam partem mittit in calicem, nichil dicens. Hinc sanctificatur vinum per corpus Di". And here a later hand has added "sed tamen non transsubstanciatum in sanguinem".

    1. Still, it's a pretty late medieval Missal, and doesn't seem to be representative of the period as a whole. Since the liturgy wasn't regulated at this period, variations like this were bound to happen.

  6. i thought i remembered not receiving whe i was young thamks im not going to receive