What the Papal First Mass Said to Me about Eucharistic Symbolism


I tuned in last Tuesday to the First Mass of the new Pope Francis. It is interesting to watch ‘from the point of view of an outsider’. The first thing that I noticed was that the chapel was well and truly divided into two by a big iron gate. Inside were all the cardinals in gold chasubles, and outside were I presume people of other denominations and lay people (Although I think that the Orthodox got a place ‘inside’ )


One could say ‘well the chapel is not meant for such occasions’ and so on, but the picture still remains. There are those who are ‘close to the action’ and those who are separated from it to some degree. What message does this send about Christianity? I am aware of some other places where such separation occurs. At Maulbron in Germany, there is a Monastery where there are two chapels. One was for the priests (children of the nobility) and one for the brothers (children of lesser folk). This separation I thought was not something we would want to hold onto today.


But even in our own Church we make a dividing wall. Can you guess where it is? At the communion, where we are all most ‘one’ and ‘in communion with God’ we ‘shut the gate’ and the whole of the prayer of thanksgiving for the communion is said with a fence between the people and the ‘most holy’ part of the Church at that time, the altar and the ministers on the other side of the gate. I don’t like it. Again you can say ‘Well we need to have a communion rail that goes all the way across so that people can kneel. True, but who says that they have to be able to kneel all the way across? Who says that people have to kneel for communion? There is a school of thought that says that the picture we should make at the communion is not one of people kneeling humbly, but as the ‘priestly people of god’ standing in the house of God interceding for the world, and celebrating the resurrection. We are used to it, I know, but as I noticed something abut who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ at the Papal Mass, so I think that newcomers also notice when the gate is ‘open’ and when it is ‘shut’ and who gets to ‘go in’. I would like to keep that gate open as a symbol that the veil of the temple has been rent in two, and that the possibility of communion with God breaks out beyond the holy place into all that is secular. Would you be dismayed if we did not shut the gate but invited people to stand at that spot, or go to a place on the rail that they could kneel if they wanted to?


The other thing that was not possible to miss simply because of the multitude was the fact that all the cardinals took the bread and wine from the altar themselves, as if they were the celebrant. No one ‘fed’ them from the Body of Christ, not even the Pope. He went to sit down, and the cardinals walked up to the altar and fed themselves. What is that? If it was thought that all the cardinals were celebrating the Eucharist with the Pope then they might be encouraged to do what the ‘celebrant’ does and feed themselves. But this whole thing is deeply troubling to me. In the first place, the ‘celebrant’ at the Eucharist is everyone. The priest is the ‘presider’ or ‘president’. I do not agree with the once popular idea of ‘con-celebration’ where all the priests present say the words of institution. It can be seen as a nice gesture when priests get together, or for visiting, but I am of the view that the ‘self’ on is in any given circumstance is like a ‘picture’ that is brought into being as one engages with the environment. This means that I can be easily a ‘member of the whole people of God’ self (which I am), or a Deacon Self (Which I am) or a President Self. Just because I am a priest, it does not mean that I have to play this part every time I am there.


And then there is the question about why the president feeds himself. I am reminded of the story about one person who went to heaven and one person who went to hell. The scene was the same! There was a long table filled with fine food. People were seated with cutlery which was so long it could not possibly fit into one’s own mouth. In hell, everyone was starving and unhappy because they were trying to feed themselves! In heaven, everyone was satisfied and happy because they took the food, reached across the table and fed one another.


It looked terribly greedy, all these cardinals feeding themselves, and then the others who were allowed to come to communion being fed by them. One could also say that the president is playing the Role of Jesus in the Eucharist, and just as Jesus distributed the bread and wine at the Last Supper, so the president distributes this bread and wine. But against that, I would argue that the presence of Christ is focused in the whole people of God (Body of Christ) present in the Church and that the feeding is a mutual responsibility. Sure, there are different roles to be played, and it is right that the president properly presides while other people properly carry out their roles, but I am of the view that it makes a better symbol in the Eucharist if the communion minister offers the bread and wine to the priest after the president has offered the bread and wine to the communion minister. That captures the symbol of mutual feeding in the picture of ‘heaven’ that was in the parable I quoted.


When we celebrate the Eucharist we are doing a highly symbolic actin, whose actions convey as much information about what we are trying to say as the words. As an outside observer of the Papal Mass, some of the symbolism struck me as being incongruent with being truly Christian. This led me to think about pour symbols here. I think we could have a fruitful discussion about how our symbols convey Christ to those who watch with the eyes of a stranger.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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