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A Tridentine wedding and “How not to” homiletics

Two friends of mine were recently married, according to the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, better known as the Tridentine Rite. It was the first nuptial mass of its kind in Rome since Pope Benedict XVI published Summorum Pontificum and established a personal parish in the Eternal City for the followers of the pre-Vatican II liturgies.

This is one of the unanticipated gifts of being in Rome, being able to time travel and see what the various sacraments and rites were like for the four centuries before Vatican II went digging around the scriptural and patristic sources to bring back the older traditions while simultaneously brining everything “up to date”.

It was a beautiful day. The weather was perfect, the liturgical chant was beautifully sung, the bride was radiant, the bridesmaids beautiful, and the reception was a masterpiece of hospitality and conviviality. The liturgy was observed at church of Santissima Trinita dei Peligrini, and the reception was hosted in the gardens of the Passionist Retreat of John and Paul, home of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas. About 70 guests were present, some from as far as Vancouver, BC or Johannesburg, South Africa.

The people I met were wonderful, and though I did not get as much time to get to know the wedding party – between their hard work preparing for the wedding, and their deserved socializing afterwards – I had some great conversations and met some fascinating people.

It was, overall, one of the most beautiful wedding weekends to which I have been invited.

It is therefore all the more to the credit of the bride and groom, and their assembled guests, that they did not let the one black mark on the day ruin the rest: It was the worst wedding homily I have ever heard. I can honestly say it nearly had me in tears.

(I debated whether to write about this or not – hopefully my choice to do so is not interpreted as disrespect to my friends who were married, but serves as a lesson for those of us in preaching ministries!)

The priest began by comparing marriage to investing in the stock market – risks and rewards. I do not find financial analogies to personal relationships generally helpful, but he might have been able to move on to something meaningful. Instead, the meandering sermon – decidedly not a genuine homily – stumbled from one faux pas to another.

The proper epistle for the nuptial mass in the Tridentine form is the passage from Ephesians that admonishes “wives be submissive to your husbands, husband love your wife.” This was the starting point for an anecdote that seemed to be titled “how not to preach on this passage”. He made his point, but probably not the way he intended:

“Let me tell you about the wrong way to read this passage. I was at a parish in the diocese of Rochester [New York] when this was the reading of the day. Now for those of you not from the U.S., or not in the ecclesiastical scene, Rochester is one of the five worst dioceses in the country. …”

Anybody want to bet he was thinking of Seattle among the other four? Rochester’s bishop usually gets critiqued for, among other ‘liberal tendencies’, his support of lay people in ministry. Hmm… strike one against a crowd of lay students at pontifical universities preparing for ministry.

“… the priest could have talked about the proper attitude of husbands and wives, but instead started talking about the ‘context’ and ‘historical criticism’ of the text! As if what scripture said then and what it says now are ‘historically conditioned’ and must be understood differently! Of course, this priest was a Jesuit, and you cannot expect anything orthodox from them!”

So… actual scripture study and the Jesuits in one blow. Poor Biblicum students.

“… Now, I am not saying that wives should be slaves to their husbands, like the Muslims believe….”

And our resident imam, friend and housemate of the bride, sitting right in front of me. Ouch.

“… there is something the Muslims get right. Their women wear a veil. Here too, we see a veil. It marks what is set aside, what is restricted. The tabernacle is veiled, to show that only the priest can enter it, just like the bride is veiled …”

Thankfully, he did not explicitly complete that thought, but the parallel was not lost. A little uncomfortable, but not quite offensive like the previous statements.

Then the meandering somehow landed on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, on which it stayed for a while. I honestly cannot remember what the point of that was, I was trying too hard to keep a straight face by focusing on the image of the Holy Trinity above the altar. The whole thing went on for about 20 minutes, though i felt like an eternity.

As someone intimately connected with the wedding mentioned afterwards, “there was nothing about love, nothing really about marriage… what the hell was he thinking!?”

At least the pastor, during the “admonishment on the responsibilities of the married state” at the exchange of vows before the mass, spoke of “procreation and the upbringing of offspring”. Maybe not how I would have put it, but more apropos than purely partisan preaching!

Imposed (Ir)reverence?

Can you force someone to be more reverent? Is it possible to compel reverence from someone by demanding a particular prayer, position, or facial expression?

We can cultivate reverence. We can create environments that aid people in prayer. We can counsel others, offer spiritual companionship and direction, and inspire liturgical involvement and devotional piety in a way that encourages reverence. But I do not think it is possible to make people more reverent by making them do something which they are not ready to do. In fact, trying to do so would more often have the effect opposite of the intent, and instead impose irreverence.

Yet it is precisely in the language of “increasing reverence” during the Eucharist that there has been discussion in recent years of imposing particular postures – including how one receives communion. It has always been my position – as someone who has spent a decade instructing Eucharistic ministers and prepared adults and children to receive their first communion – that you should receive communion reverently.

"...make with the left a throne for the right hand, which recieves the King" -Cyril of Jerusalem, c. 313-386 AD

The Latin church itself prescribes two forms for this, in the hands and on the tongue. Dioceses and bishops’ conferences may add or stress elements of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, such that in some places we are asked to bow before receiving, as we proclaim ‘Amen’; others suggest a sign of the cross immediately after; in the Archdiocese of Seattle we remain standing throughout the communion procession as a sign of reverence, honoring the presence of Christ and the assembly’s act of communion with Him (and the Church), and honoring the liturgical integrity of the procession itself.

The Holy Father has himself weighed in on this, especially since he has been seen to prefer to administer communion in a particular fashion, and some commentators interpreted this to mean he was indicating a change. This is not entirely the case, however:

I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself.

The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of Mass events we hold at Saint Peter’s, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving Communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir.

In recent months, it seems this last, unique concern has trumped general liturgical principle, and since the beginning of Advent 2010, at St. Peter’s Basilica during papal masses (and only at papal liturgies, as far as I have seen) communicants are refused communion unless they receive on the tongue.

The first time this happened to me, it was quite jarring. There has been no announcement that I have found, it was just a change. In fact, it seemed that many of the Eucharistic ministers (who are always priests during the papal liturgies, though not necessarily so at other liturgies there) had not been informed. I thought, actually, that it was just the priest at my station “imposing reverence” as he saw fit. He even looked a bit smug. Looking up and down the aisle, some priests were still serving the host according to the communicant’s desire, and others were refusing ‘in the hand’.

Clearly, this did not instill reverence, but rather robbed the moment of its usual spiritual peace. As I watched people’s reactions, from tourists to young Italians, to one elderly nun in full habit, more than three-quarters went to receive on the hand and when they were refused, responded in surprise, confusion, or even disgust (the septuagenarian sister looked ready to ‘have words’ with the young priest, but then decided against it).

The second time I went to a papal mass with this new practice, the priest at my communion station was a friend and classmate. I was prepared, and this time noticed every minister serving in the hand only, and this time it was the ushers who were gesticulating to everyone to make it clear that communion was only available orally. My friend looked apologetic, and the priest next to him was confused, clearly not having been informed of this new rule, either. Again, though some people would have received this way in any case and others had been recently enough to know what to expect, others looked disconcerted, distracted, or dissatisfied. None appeared more reverent.

Then again, reverence is an interior orientation, not an exterior expression, so maybe they were.

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