Back in the day: the Council of Trent

Back in the day: the Council of Trent

My how the times change! So the other day, I was passing time thumbing through excerpts from the Catechism of the Council of Trent (admit it, that’s what you do on a rainy day too) and I came across this remarkable passage:

The Laity Prohibited To Touch The Sacred Vessels

To safeguard in every possible way the dignity of so august a Sacrament, not only is the power of its administration entrusted exclusively to priests, but the Church has also prohibited by law any but consecrated persons, unless some case of great necessity intervene, to dare handle or touch the sacred vessels, the linen, or other instruments necessary to its completion.

Priests themselves and the rest of the faithful may hence understand how great should be the piety and holiness of those who approach to consecrate, administer or receive the Eucharist.

I was struck by the force of this admonition. The force, or the effect, is the direct result of how different things are now, when everyone and their uncle stroll about the sanctuary and handle the sacred vessels with the same reverence with which they grab a pint at County Clare.  I am hit with a nagging question: How can something that was considered absolutely verboten for centuries so quickly, within forty years or so, come to be celebrated as a true sign of “active participation” today?  Strictly forbidden yesterday, actively encouraged today. Make sense to you?

The administering of the Blessed Sacrament, and even the handling of the instruments associated with the Sacrament, was clearly limited to the exclusive prerogative of the priest. There can be no doubt from this passage that the Church took this matter very seriously, precisely because of “the dignity of so august a Sacrament.” So what happened? What changed? How did our understanding become so radically altered?

Go to virtually any Mass and take notice of the numerous Eucharistic Ministers (the correct term is actually Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion) casually filing in and out of the Sanctuary, handling not just the vessels, but the very Sacrament. Go to any Mass on the campus of a Catholic university like Marquette, and take notice of the scantily clad gals donning skin-tight leggings, short shorts and revealing tops administering the Sacrament. It’s pretty scandalous.

I remember my days at Marquette High School, when 16-year-old kids were charged with distributing Holy Communion. I distinctly recall how routine it all was,  no reverence, no awe before the ineffable mystery. Again I ask: What changed? What happened? Can there be any doubt that a direct tie can be made between the limiting of the handling of the Sacrament, as prescribed in the Conciliar document, and reverence toward the Sacrament?

Today, something like only 27% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence! And this sharp decline in faith occurred simultaneously with the “Step right up and become a Eucharistic Minister!” craze that took hold in Catholic churches in America. Are we beginning to see a relation here?

Look, I know we’re not going to go back to the same standard that was codified at the Council of Trent, as much as I would like to see that. But does this mean that we have to settle with a full embrace of the opposite standard? The fact that so few are even discussing this is cause for alarm. I can only look to the leadership and ask that a little more attention be given to this all-important matter.

I know that this post is going to be met with a lot of shoulder-shrugging and “What’s the big deal?” but that insouciant reaction only serves to prove my point. (You know, quod erat demonstrandum, and all that jazz.) Seriously, if, after a discussion about proper reverence due the Blessed Sacrament, the reaction from the faithful is a dismissive “What’s the big deal? There are more important things to talk about…” we have real difficulties.