We have not, as yet, reached the Feast of the divine Memorial; not until the morrow shall we have it in all its splendor. But this evening at first Vespers, the Church will begin her acclamations to the Eternal Priest, and although the Sovereign Pontiffs have not ordained that a Vigil, properly so called, shall precede the Feast of Corpus Christi, yet have they granted indulgences to a voluntary fast practiced on this its eve. Let us now resume the history of the Church’s worship of the great mystery.
We have already seen how the unity of the Church is based upon the Eucharist. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in that Sacrament, is the corner stone, upon which rises, in the harmony of its several parts, the temple of living stones built to the glory of God. Jesus is the High Priest ordained for men, himself being Man, that he may present to God the homage of his Brethren, by offering to his and their Father a Sacrifice in the name of all. And although this homage of regenerate,—mankind this Sacrifice which is the highest expression of that homage,—owes its whole worth to the infinite dignity of him who is the Head of the Church,—yet the Sacrifice is only complete when there is the union of the Members with the Head. The Head must have the Body. The Church is, as the Apostle tells us, the fullness, the completion, of Him who is filled in all; the Church perfects the Sacrifice as an integral portion of the Victim who is offered upon the Altar. What is true of the Church is true likewise of each one of us, who are Members of Christ; and we are really, his Members provided we be united in the great Action of the Sacrifice, by that intimate union which makes one Body of many Members.
Herein consists the social influence of the Eucharist. The human family had been broken up by sin; it regains its lost unity by the Blood of the Lamb; and the original intention, which God had in creating the world, is fulfilled. After all other beings there came forth out of nothing the creature man; he was to give a voice of praise to the whole of creation; for, his own twofold nature, material and spiritual, made him the compendium of all other creatures. When he was restored by redemption he regained his position in the glorious choir of beings. The Eucharist,—the Thanksgiving, the praise by excellence, is the sweet produce of the human race. The Eucharist,—that grand hymn of divine Wisdom sung to the King of ages,—ascends from this earth of ours, blending the two harmonies into one; the ineffable harmony of the eternal Canticle that is the Word in the Father’s bosom,—and the harmony of the new Canticle, which is repeated by the choir of creatures, to the glory of their Creator.
The Ages of Faith lived on this grand truth; they thoroughly understood the priceless worth of the gift bestowed by the Man-God upon his Church. Appreciating the honor thence accruing to our earth, they felt themselves bound to respond to it in the name of all creatures, by giving to the celebration of the sacred Mystery everything that ritual could impart of grandeur and solemnity. The Liturgy, for the Christians of those times, was exactly what is implied by the word: it was the public function, the social act by excellence; and as such, it claimed every sort of external pomp; and the presence of the whole people round the Altar was looked upon as a matter of course. As to the lawfulness of what are called Private Masses, it would be easy to prove by most authentic facts of history, that what the Catholic Church teaches regarding them, was her teaching from the very commencement; and yet, practically and as a general rule, the richness of ceremonial the enthusiasm of sacred chant the magnificence of sacred rites were, for a long period, regarded as inseparable, from the offering up of the Holy Sacrifice.
The solemnities of divine service as celebrated in any Catholic Cathedral, on the greatest Feast in the Year, is but a feeble image of the magnificent forms of the ancient Liturgies, such as we described them yesterday. The Church herself, whose desires for what is most perfect never vary, ever evinces a marked predilection for the remnants she has been able to keep up of her ancient forms of worship; but as far as the generality of her people is concerned, there can be no doubt of the existence of a growing feeling of indifference for the external pomp wherewith the holy Sacrifice is so deservedly accompanied; whatever demonstrations of Christian piety still exist, are directed elsewhere. The cultus of the divine presence in the Eucharist as developed in these our own times, is certainly a blow to the heresy which denies that Presence; it is, too, a joy to every Catholic who loves God; but care must be taken lest a movement which is so profitable to individual souls and so redounding to the glory of the holy Sacrament, should be turned by the craft of the enemy against the Eucharist itself. Now, this might easily be the case if, in consequence of such devotion being ill regulated, the very primary object of the eucharistic dogma which is Sacrifice,—were permitted to lose its place, either in the appreciation, or in the practical religion, of the Faithful.
In the admirable connection existing throughout the whole body of Christian revelation, there can be no such thing as one dogma becoming a danger to another. Every new truth, or every truth presented under a new aspect, is a progress in the Church and an acquisition for her children. But the progress is then only a true one when in its application, the new truth, or its new aspect, is not treated with such prominence as to throw a more important truth into the shade. Surely, no family would ever count that gain of new property to be a boon which would jeopardize or lessen the rich patrimony which past ages had secured. The principle is a self-evident one; and must be borne in mind when studying the different phases of the history of any human society, and especially when the History of the Church is in question. If the Holy Spirit, who is ever urging the Church to what is highest, is incessantly adorning her for the eternal nuptials, and is decking her brow with a gradual increase of light,—yet is it but too often the case that the human element of which she partakes through her members, her children, makes its weight tell upon the Bride of Christ. When that happens, she redoubles her maternal solicitude for these her children; they are too delicate to live on the summits and bear the bracing atmosphere to which their forefathers were accustomed. She herself continues her aspirations after what is most perfect and approaches gradually nearer to heaven; but for the sake of her weakly children, she quits the mountain paths she loved to tread in better times, for those paths kept her closer to her divine Spouse; she comes lower down, she is content to lose something of her external charms, she stoops,—that she may the better reach the children she has to save. This her condescension is admirable; but it certainly gives no right to the children who live in these less healthy times, to think themselves better than their forefathers. Is a sick man better than the one who is in health, because the food, which is indispensable for keeping up the little strength he has, is given to him under new forms, and such as will suit his debilitated frame?
Because, in these our days, a certain increase of devotion towards the divine Host, who dwells in our tabernacles, has been observed in some souls, and the external demonstration of this devotion is under a new form, it has been asserted, that “no age ever equaled our own in the cultus of the Most Holy Sacrament!” And because of this holy enthusiasm, our 19th Century, which with its restless activity has opened out so many new methods of devotion, has been called, by a certain writer, “the great age of the Eucharist!” Would to God these assertions were correct! for it is quite true, and history is rich in bearing testimony to the fact that “an age is more or less glorious according to its devotion towards the adorable Eucharist.” But it is no less true that if the different Centuries be compared with each other for devotion towards the Sacrament of Love,—which, at all times, is the very life of the Church,—there can be no doubt but that that ought to be counted as the golden age, in which our Lord’s intentions in instituting the divine Mystery were the best understood and carried out, and not that wherein individual devotion was busiest.
Now, leaving aside for the present all principles connected with dogma, and which will find their place more appropriately a few days later,—we have history to bear witness to this fact that, so long as the western nations kept up their faith and fervor, the Church who is the faithful and sure interpreter of her Jesus’ intentions, maintained the discipline observed in the worship practiced towards the Eucharist during the early ages. After her twofold victory over the pagan persecutions and the obstinate dogmatism of the Emperors of Byzantium, the Church, the noble depositarian of the New Testament, was in possession of a freedom greater than she has had at any other period; her children, too, made it their perfection to follow her every wish. Thus free to act as she knew was best, and sure to be obeyed, she kept to the way of eucharistic worship which her Martyrs had followed and her Doctors had so enthusiastically developed in their writings: that is, she took the energies of the new children she had received, by the conversion of barbarian nations, and centered them in the Sacrifice, that is, in the holy fatigues of solemn Mass and the Canonical Hours, which are but a natural irradiation of the Sacrifice.
Nothing in those times was more catholic,—nothing less individual and private,—than the eucharistic worship thus based on the social character which pertains to the Sacrifice. It was the uppermost idea even in such of the faithful as, through sickness or other personal reasons, were obliged to communicate of the universal Victim separatedly from the rest of the people. It was the one leading thought, which made them turn their hearts and their adorations towards the gilded dove, or the ivory tower, in which were conserved, under the mysterious integrity of the Sacrament, the precious remnants of the Sacrifice.
Faith in the real presence, a faith quite as animated and deep as any that can be witnessed in our own times, was the soul of the whole Liturgy; it was the basis of the entire system of the Church’s rites and ceremonies, all of which are unmeaning if you take away the catholic dogma of the Eucharist. This dogma was admitted by all the children of the Church as a principle beyond discussion; it was their dearest treasure; it was a truth, which was both foundation stone and roofing of the House built amongst men by Eternal Wisdom. To a superficial observer, it might seem as though the Faithful of those early ages were less intent upon it than we now are: but is it not always the case that the rock which supports the edifice, and the timber which roofs it, call for less solicitude when the building is under no risk, either from the indifference of its inmates, or from the attacks of enemies outside?
The Church herself cannot grow decrepit; but it is a law in history that, even within her fold, and in spite of the vitality she imparts to nations, no society ever maintains itself long at its highest pitch of perfection. Men are like stars in this, that their apogee marks the period of their decline; they only seem to mount on high that they may speedily descend: and after the fullest vigor of age, we gradually approach the impotency of the old man. So was it to be with Christendom itself, with that grand confederation which had been established by the Church in the strong unity of unfeigned charity, and of faith unalloyed by error. The Crusades were, for a second time, rousing the world to holy enterprise; the preaching of St. Bernard was stirring mankind to zeal for the cause of God. The impulse was so immense that it seemed as though the event marked the culminating point of Christ’s reign upon earth and secured perpetuity to the power of the Church. And yet, that was the very period when old signs of decay returned, and with fresh intensity. The heroic Pontiff St. Gregory the Seventh had stemmed the evil for a considerable time, but at the period we speak of, a relapse set in and advanced with its work of ravage till it brought about the great revolt of the 15th Century and the general apostasy of nations.
The celebrated prophetess of the Middle Ages, St. Hildegard, was then scanning with her eagle eye the miseries of her own day, and the still more somber threatenings of the future. She that was used to write the messages of God to Pontiffs and Kings penned these words in a Letter to Werner and his brother Priests of Kircheim,—they had written to Hildegard and solicited her reply: “It was whilst lying for a long time on a bed of sickness in the year of the Lord’s Incarnation, one thousand one hundred and seventy, that I saw, wakeful both in body and mind, a most beautiful image, having a woman’s appearance: she was all perfect in her suavity, and most dear in the charms of her beauty, which was such as that the human mind could in no wise comprehend it. Her stature was so great that it reached from earth even up to heaven. Her face, too, beamed with exceeding brightness, and her eye was fixed on heaven. She was clad in a spotless garment made of white silk. The mantle which covered her was adorned with most precious stones of emerald, sapphire, and likewise of beads and pearls. The shoes on her feet were of onyx. But her face was covered with dust, and her garment was rent on the right side, and her mantle had lost its elegant beauty, and her shoes were dimmed. And she, with a loud and plaintive voice, cried out towards the high heavens: ‘Hearken, O heaven, that my face is defiled! And wail, 0 earth, that my garment is rent! And thou, 0 abyss, tremble because my shoes are dimmed. Foxes have holes, and birds of the air nests; but I have not helper or comforter, nor staff whereon to lean, and whereby to have support.’ … ‘They that should have adorned me in every way have, in all these things, abandoned me. For it is they that besmear my face, by dragging the Body and Blood of my Spouse into the great uncleanness of the impurity of their living, and the great filth of their fornications and adulteries; and by buying and selling holy things, defiling them as a child would be, were he put down in mire before swine… The wounds of Christ my Spouse are contaminated.’ … Princes and a headlong people will rush upon you, O Priests! They will cast you forth and put you to flight and will take your riches away from you … They will say: ’Let us cast out from the Church these adulterers and extortioners, and men that are full of all wickedness!’ And in doing this, they will have it that they do a service unto God, because they say that it is by you that the Church is defiled… By God’s permission, many nations will begin to rage against you in their judgments, and many people will devise vain things concerning you, for they will count as nought your priestly office and your consecration. Kings of the earth will assist these in your overthrow, and they will thirst after the earthly things (you possess); and the Princes in whose dominions you live, shall make a convention in this one plan,—that they may drive you out of their territories, because you, by your most wicked deeds, have driven away the innocent Lamb from your midst. And I heard a voice from heaven, saying: ‘This image is the Church!’”
What a fearful description of the evils brought upon the Church in the 12th Century! What a prophecy of its far off results! These miseries were in keeping with the way in which the august Mystery of the Altar was treated. It has always been so. The disorders of the sanctuary necessarily brought about relaxation in the people. They grew wearied of receiving the heavenly food from hands that were, but too often, unworthy ones. The guests at the banquet of divine Wisdom became rare, so rare indeed, that in the year 1215, a General Council, the 4th of Lateran, passed the well known law which obliges under the severest penalties the Faithful of both sexes to receive Communion at least once in the Year. The evil became so great that the legislation of Councils and the genius of Innocent the Third, the last of the great Popes of the Middle Ages, would not have sufficed to arrest it, had not God given to his Church the two Saints, Dominic and Francis: they reclaimed the Priesthood and, for a time, brought back the people to the practice of Christian piety. But the ancient forms of the Liturgy had perished during the interval of the crisis.
The oblation in common, which supposed that all communicated in the divine Victim, had given place to private foundations, and to honoraries or stipendium; in themselves, they were quite lawful, but they had been so considerably increased by the introduction of the mendicant Orders, that a change in the Liturgy was the consequence. Private Masses, for special intentions, were multiplied in order to satisfy obligations which had been contracted with individual donors; and by a necessary consequence, the imposing rite of concelebration, maintained in Rome till the 13th Century, entirely disappeared in the Western Church. The Sacrifice of the Mass was no longer brought before the Faithful with the majestic ceremonial which, in former times, had secured to it a preponderance over the whole religion and life of the Christian people. The holy Eucharist soon began to be given out of the time of Mass, and for reasons which were not always serious ones. More than one scholastic theologian encouraged the practice. If this scholastic had not true learning on his side, he had his sharp definitions and categorical divisions; and Communion seemed to become, in the minds of some men, a something distinct by itself in the institution of the Eucharist. This was a forerunner of what we so often find practiced in our own times:—Communions made isolatedly and furtively, on principle, that is, in accordance with an ideal of spirituality which has a dread of a crowd, and a repugnance to the excitement of the Church’s ceremonies.
The notion, then, of the Sacrifice, which includes the chief motive of the Presence of the Incarnate Word in the Eucharist, was no longer brought before the people with the emphatic pre-eminence of former ages. As a counter result of this, the truth of this Presence of our God under the eucharistic species gained an ascendancy over the soul in a more exclusive, and therefore, in a more impressive and direct way. It was at this period that, out of a spirit of holy fear, and from a feeling of respect, a feeling which can never be too great,—several ancient usages began to be discontinued. Usages which were established at first with a view the better to realize or express the application of the Sacrifice, were afterwards suppressed, as exposing the sacred species to involuntary irreverence. It was thus that the custom of giving the chalice to the laity and communion to infants fell into desuetude.
An immense ritual change then was brought about. The Church accepted it, although she was aware of its being, in more than one point, a degeneracy as compared with former ages. The time had come when the grand social forms of the Liturgy, requiring as they did the strong union of Christian nations for the basis, would be but unrealities. The jealous mistrust of States against the Church,—that is, against the power which was the sole bond of mutual union between the several nations,—was ever on the increase, and only waited for an occasion to break out into open hostility. Diplomacy became a system of rupture between one country and another, just as the Church had been the framer and maintainer of their union.
If the evil from within was thus great, still greater were the dangers to which the Faithful were exposed by the onslaughts of heresy. And yet, it is precisely in such a time as this that is most manifested the superhuman prudence of the Church. In defense of that which is the essential element of her existence here below,—in defense, that is, of Faith,—she formed a rampart out of the very ruins caused by the liturgical revolution she had been compelled to accept; she sanctioned with her authority what was worthy of sanction, and thereby controlled the movement. She took advantage of the increase of devotion to the Real Presence, which the movement had excited; she gave a fresh direction to her Liturgy by substituting a ceaseless expression of the dogma for the less precise, though not less complete, and far grander, forms of the earlier period. It was a reply to heresy all the stronger because of its being more direct. We have already seen how, in consequence of the covert attacks of false doctrine, there was an evident reason felt in the 13th Century for instituting a special Feast in honor of the Eucharist as the Mystery of Faith. That reason became sheer necessity at the approach, foreseen by God alone, of the bold triumph of the sacramentarian heresy. It was necessary to forestall the attack; and by so doing, to render the coming assault less hurtful to the christian world, and less injurious to that Lord who is present in the Sacrament of his love. The means for efficaciously realizing these two ends was the development of exterior devotion to the Real Presence; the Church would thus proclaim her unshaken faith in the dogma, and the adorable Sacrament would receive, by the renewed fervor of faithful souls, a compensation for the indifference and insults of others.
Established throughout the world by the authority of the Roman Pontiffs, the Feast of Corpus Christi was, therefore, both in itself and in its developments, as we were observing yesterday, the commencement of a new phase in the Catholic worship of the holy Eucharist. Once the feast was instituted, there followed Processions, Benedictions, Forty-Hours, Expositions, Watchings in adoration; each of which was an additional affirmation of the Church’s belief in the Real Presence; the piety of her children was re-enkindled; and to that Lord who, for our sakes, dwells under the sacramental species, there was offered that tribute of homage which is so justly his due.
O Holy Church, our Mother, thou Bride of the Son of God, those times are past when thou couldst produce on this earth, a likeness to the heavenly Jerusalem. Free to follow the inspirations of thy heart as Bride, our ancestors witnessed thy arranging the great Sacrifice with the gorgeous ceremonial which gave them an insight into the grandeurs of the mystery they saw thus celebrated. That royal magnificence of ritual would be too much for such times as these we live in. The nations of the earth have let themselves be misled: for the glory they once enjoyed when thou gavest them unity with each other through the unity of the sacred Mysteries, is now exchanged for the dishonor and misery of alliance with the old enemy. While thou, with nothing to fear, and strong in the consciousness of thy rights and thy influence for good, wast beautifying in peace the garden of thy Spouse; while thou wast rejoicing in the sweet fragrance of that garden, and in the fruits of the mystic vine, a strange noise was heard, the noise of the chariots of Aminadab, driven by the hands of thine own children turned traitors. It would have been but a just punishment, hadst thou then left this ungrateful earth and gone to thy divine Spouse in heaven above. But, O loving Sulamitess, with all this increase of the evils of thine exile, thou gavest ear to the cries of them who willed to be ever thy faithful children; and thou remainedst for us, dear Mother, that we might receive thy teachings and thence derive light and life.
We know it: instead of the peaceful grandeurs which thou, beautiful Queen, didst once display when thy sovereignty was undisputed; instead of choirs of exultation and triumph resounding in thy courts, we are to see thee henceforth as a warrior, and thy hymns are to be the songs of the camp: but how beautiful are thy steps in the armor of thy pilgrimage, O thou daughter of the King! Thou art terrible as an army set in array; but thou art, too, all sweet and comely when laying aside the robe of gold and all the richly varied clothing which decked thee standing at the right hand of the King’s throne, thou girdest thyself, like him, with the sword, and pierces the hearts of his enemies with the arrows of thy truth and zeal.
Turning our thoughts, for a moment, to the Greek Church, how different is the spectacle! She is motionless from the sterility that is in a branch severed from the trunk. She retains, like so many withered leaves, the ancient forms of her liturgy, which has indeed an imposing unity, but it is the unity of schism. The very Heresy which here in our own country celebrates its unmeaning Supper in the Cathedrals built by our forefathers,—is it more out of place than the lifeless Schism of the East, which so scrupulously keeps up the ancient forms, which are its condemnation, and makes a parade of Vestments which sit so awkwardly on rebels? What life can the members of such a Church derive from these dead forms of worship?
No: she alone is Mother, who knows how to meet the wants of her children, for her affection tells her not to give to delicate ones the food that suits the strong. She alone is the Bride of the Lamb, who has the instinctive talent of making in each period of time the most of the treasure of her Spouse, the priceless Pearl he has committed to her care; and to this end she hesitates not to modify, if need be, her dearest practices her most cherished schemes for good; yea, and changes the delights and grandeurs of her queenly supremacy for the hard work of battling with the enemy of her Lord and her children.
We recognize thee, O Bride of Christ, by this mark, that thou now lispest with us who are weak, thou that, heretofore didst sing so divinely with the strong; and that thou who so long enjoyedst the peace and company of thy Spouse art as ready and as powerful to meet and vanquish his enemies, now that they are filling his world. Thus struggling, thus laboring, and in both misunderstood,—misunderstood and blamed by an ever-increasing number of ungrateful children,—thou wilt not abandon them, but remainest, that thou mayst carry to the last of the elect the sacred Host, which is to unite him with the great Sacrifice. Affectionate and generous Mother! we will follow thee in thy militant career; through the laborious passes of the steep road which leads thee to thy eternal rest; we will follow thee, because thou bearest with thee the treasure of the world. The bolder the attacks of heresy and the more insulting the neglect or blasphemies of ungrateful children, the louder shall be the professions of our faith, the humbler our adorations, the warmer and truer the demonstrations of our love towards the sacred Host.
From The Liturgical Year, by Dom Prosper Gueranger
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