A colleague of mine, a fellow priest, was approached by a parishioner one Sunday before Mass with an unusual request. He had brought with him two visitors who, as he explained, did not subscribe to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist but still wished to come to Communion. The request was this: when they came to receive communion would the priest be "sensitive" and say "Do this in memory of me" instead of "The Body of Christ"?
On this occasion, I am relieved to say, the priest refused. But to my mind the most noteworthy aspect of the incident is that the request was made at all. If the visitors did not actually accept the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine would it not have been more logical - and more polite - for them to forego communion altogether rather than to ask the priest to alter the words of the Mass to suit their purely personal interpretations?
What significance, I wondered, did these visitors attribute to their receiving Communion when they denied one of the central aspects of its meaning? And why were they happy with the phrase "Do this in memory of me", as opposed to the equally valid scriptural references to the Eucharist as Jesus' body and blood?
An aura of reverence
When I was growing up the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, like the Mass itself, was surrounded with an aura of respect and reverence. However dimly and inadequately it was understood by children, here, we knew, was something special and indeed unique: the presence of God. For this reason we were encouraged to genuflect on entering and leaving church.
Many people also found the presence of the Blessed Sacrament helpful in prayer, so that even for reasons of simple consideration towards others, we were brought up to observe silence inside the church. On one occasion, when I and some other children were making a noise, the priest emerged from the sacristy and quietened us with the remark: "Remember the sacred presence!"
At that time, which after all was only thirty or so years ago, we were taught that we should not receive Communion unless we were properly disposed - that if we had done something wrong we should abstain from Communion until we had been to Confession. In my family we would not receive Communion if there had been an argument or a row - not only because we were in the wrong frame of mind to receive (i.e. angry and resentful) but because our lack of communion with each other meant that we weren't 'in communion' with God. The fast before Mass also reinforced a reverential attitude towards the Eucharist and underscored its sacred character.
A rowdy and profane shambles
Now it seems all that is gone. Today one rarely sees children, or their parents, genuflecting, and indeed even altar servers in many cases appear to view genuflection simply as part of the choreography of the Mass rather than as a sign of respect which is made every time we enter or leave "the Sacred Presence". The slovenly and distracted way in which many people receive Communion gives the impression that they hardly understand, let alone value, what they are doing.
More generally, there are fewer and fewer Catholic churches where a still and prayerful silence has not been replaced by the buzz of hearty conversation, a buzz which only subsides when the bell announces the start of Mass - and sometimes not even then.
Some lengthier celebrations tax the patience of the "worshippers" so that the fidgeting and chatting begins even during mass itself. In many parishes the so-called Family Mass - a misguided attempt at liturgical niche marketing - is a rowdy and profane shambles, with parents either unable or unwilling to constrain their marauding children. It seems that the same noisy, self-dramatizing behaviour and ostentatious attention-seeking which now prevails in every public space, from the high street to the supermarket to the library, has finally invaded the sacred precincts too.
Nor is one likely to be thanked for trying to restore an ethos of silence and considerateness towards others. Once, when I dared to suggest to my own parishioners that they wait until they leave the church before they begin to socialise, I was dismissed as a "pre-Vatican II" case, attempting to restore some form of "nineteenth-century piety". As if selfish and uncouth behaviour is a mark of spiritual progress!
The meaning of signs and gestures
To some people these concerns might appear trivial and recondite. Isn't it more important to live a good Christian life than to observe such ritual niceties? Well, put like that, yes. But I don't think that is the right way to put it.
Among human beings external signs and gestures are not meaningless. They have a purpose - to express and reinforce our real inner attitudes. The reason that "ritual niceties" such as genuflecting and keeping quiet in church have been abandoned by so many Catholics is not because we are living better and more radical Christian lives. It is because our belief in the Eucharist - like so much else - has waned. Our outward behaviour reflects the weakness and the lack of earnestness of our faith.
As religious and moral convictions have become more and more a matter of private choice - in keeping with the now-axiomatic principle of consumer sovereignty - the Catholic concept of a unified and universally accepted body of beliefs has given way to a variety of equally valid personal interpretations. According to this new mentality, lack of belief does not have to mean lack of participation: community feeling and "inclusiveness" are seen as ends in themselves, with the Mass being instrumentalised as a means to the end.
The result, as far as Sunday Mass is concerned, is that the spirit of worship and ritual prayer has given way in many places to a crowd-pleasing vaudeville.
My primary objection to all this isn't that it undermines official teaching - and certainly it has nothing to do with personal pride or some clerical desire to impose my own will. My basic objection is that ultimately it doesn't make any sense. Many Massgoing Catholics today resemble a man who demands to belong to a tennis club while never actually wanting to play any tennis, and all the while voicing his disagreement with various aspects of the game!
Where this attitude is concerned, so-called flexibility might win short-term dividends, but the Church's real and lasting strength, and its power to convince, lies in the internal coherence of its beliefs and the faith and earnestness of its members. Without these we are not fit to offer others the treasure of the gospel, in its integrity.
As Christ warned his listeners on one occasion: once salt has lost its savour, what can make it salty again?