Liturgy Matters – Communion from the altar, tabernacle

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Many years ago I was serving as organist for a funeral in my home parish. As it happened, there were a number of monks at this funeral.

When it came time for the distribution of holy Communion, the pastor, the presider at this Mass, carried the paten from the altar, taking one of the center aisle positions for distribution.

The associate pastor went to the tabernacle, removed the ciborium containing the reserved Sacrament and took the position next to the pastor. All the monks in the Communion line of the associate pastor changed lines, moving to the pastor’s line.

At the time I was completely mystified by this. As I learned more and more about the liturgy, I soon learned why the monks made this change and the importance of this today.

Hundreds of years of church teaching and liturgical law militate against the practice of Communion from the tabernacle at Mass.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 85) says, “It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass and … partake of the chalice so that … Communion may stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated.”

Priests are not permitted to receive Communion from the reserved Sacrament at Mass. The faithful are strongly encouraged to follow this as well.

You may be asking, “Why is this so important? What is the difference between Communion from the tabernacle and Communion from the altar of celebration at Mass? Don’t we believe that the consecrated hosts in the tabernacle contain the body, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ?”

Yes, absolutely. Yet the church is equally clear that the reserved Sacrament is for the dying, for those unable to come to Mass, and for adoration, but not for distribution of Communion at Mass.

What makes Communion at Mass unique is the transformative element of the celebration of the Eucharist.

To fully participate in the sacrifice of the Mass requires that we receive the Eucharist from the Mass actually being celebrated, where we have offered ourselves with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The General Instruction (79f) says that the people need to learn how to offer themselves. What exactly does this mean? To offer ourselves means that we are willing to give up or let go of what prevents us from being Christlike and living out the message of the Gospel.

To help with our understanding of this full participation, we need to begin with the presentation of the gifts. Representatives of the faithful carry in procession the bread and wine which represent us, the “work of human hands,” and present it for the sacrifice.

The gift of our very lives will be offered with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Then in the Eucharistic Prayer, the great prayer of praise and sanctification, this bread and wine will be changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. When we receive these transformed elements, we too may be changed, one in the Body of Christ.

The Mass is not then just a Communion service. By the power of the Holy Spirit and our willingness to offer ourselves with the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the celebration of the Eucharist is a transformative event.

As we grow deeper in our faith, we come to see ourselves in this offering and realize our full participation in the Eucharistic Prayer and our reception of holy Communion from the Mass actually being celebrated.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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