At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church was almost totally unaware it was entering into decades of upheaval, change, and reform likely not seen since the break from Judaism in the first century. The ritual and pastoral practice of the Eucharist were little-recognized to today’s ordinary Catholic. The liturgy focused on the transcendant and on the clergy. It was important to get things right, so much so, that there was a strain in liturgical thought suggesting the Mass would be better off in the hands of clergy and the laity should stay at home. Amazingly enough, there was even a serious suggestion along these lines at the council of Trent (1545-1563). And indeed, many clergy today will insist that the Church can have the Eucharist without the laity. But without clergy we are bereft of it, no matter how powerful the grace of God.
Frequent practice around 1900, was the baptism of infants, followed by catechesis in the home, or perhaps a school where one was founded, if one was fortunate enough to live in or near a metro area served by a religious community. Remember that a majority of the world’s Catholics lived in rural areas in 1900. A teenager would be confirmed, then receive First Communion. It is true that the modern “sequence” of confession before Communion was in place at this time.
However, frequent reception of Communion was unknown outside the clergy and some religious communities. People attended Mass because they were told it was obligatory, and that the actions of the priest (with God’s cooperation) generated grace for the faithful. Observation was the prime means of receiving grace. People watched the clergy. They focused their adoration on the sacred bread. They arranged their spiritual lives according to ethnic, family, and personal observances of adoration, vernacular prayers, and frequent reception of another sacrament, Penance.
About a decade before the planet was plunged into world war, the curia studied the matter of more frequent Communion. As we’ll read in Sacra Tridentina, this was not a novel idea. It was floated and decided at Trent. But as many conservative Catholics are fond of telling the Church, councils are not always obeyed in full.
Sacra Tridentina is a brief document in comparison to the recent tomes we’ve been tackling here at Catholic Sensibility. Pope Pius X and his curia give eleven short paragraphs of background information, followed by a nine-point implementation plan. So we’re looking at two weeks of posts, I’d say.
I would also appreciate any historical background readers might care fo add: either theological or pastoral. I never studied this document in grad school, though I was aware of it. I lack the time and resources to offer anything more than a point-by-point examination of its contents. Filling in the details: I leave to you all.
A brief opening paragraph that states the case plainly enough:
The Holy Council of Trent, having in view the ineffable riches of grace which are offered to the faithful who receive the Most Holy Eucharist, makes the following declaration: “The Holy Council wishes indeed that at each Mass the faithful who are present should communicate, not only in spiritual desire, but sacramentally, by the actual reception of the Eucharist.” These words declare plainly enough the wish of the Church that all Christians should be daily nourished by this heavenly banquet and should derive therefrom more abundant fruit for their sanctification.
Even in 1905, the Church spoke of the Mass as a meal. A sacrifice is something offered to God, or to someone else. Celebrating the Mass as a banquet meal acknowledges that Eucharistic liturgy is also an opportunity of grace. Catholics don’t attend Mass to give to God. We place ourselves in a position of vulnerability, of need. Our bodies need food, and so we rely on people to grow it, harvest it, transport it to our market or superstore of choice. People close to us, often we ourselves, invest time and effort in preparing food–even if it’s the minimal gesture of plucking a fruit off a tree or a berry off a bush.
Let’s admit it: we rely on God for sustenance. We need something from God. So let’s not be shy about coming to Mass to be sustained spiritually, to be fed grace, and to participate in a meal that provides it. The bishops of the Council of Trent wished for it centuries ago. Truth be told, Sacra Tridentina is one of the last implementation documents of that 16th century gathering. I suppose it might be just as accurate to label this a post-conciliar liturgy document. It just so happens that it lies closer to the advent of the second council following than to the gathering that inspired it.