ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
55. That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest's communion, receive the Lord's body from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended.
The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remaining intact , communion under both kinds may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to clerics and religious, but also to the laity, in cases to be determined by the Apostolic See, as, for instance, to the newly ordained in the Mass of their sacred ordination, to the newly professed in the Mass of their religious profession, and to the newly baptized in the Mass which follows their baptism.
Para. 55 introduces the specific discussion of Eucharistic participation in the act of sharing the consecrated bread and wine. The overarching principle of this section is unity in symbol: that all present share the one bread and the one cup.
The first section stresses the importance of receiving Eucharistic bread consecrated at the Mass one is attending. I have never heard this principle discussed from the pulpit or in catechetical texts, and I suspect most Catholics are not aware of it. Given that the Mass is defined as a reenactment or living memorial of the Last Supper, there is Biblical appropriateness to everyone receiving from the one loaf. In the Eucharistic narratives in the Scriptures, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his assembly—the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection meal on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples immediately come to mind.
Now I am presuming here that most readers are in the United States and attend Mass in large settings, as in my own church which seats at least a thousand. So, the issue of practicality—mundane as it may be—deserves a place at the table, no pun intended. It is impossible in most of our churches to consume a portion of the large host elevated by the priest. You may notice that when the celebrant breaks the large host before the distribution of communion, an ancient rubric called the fractio panis (“breaking of the bread”), he does usually put pieces of the large host into the other vessels of consecrated bread. This is an attempt to honor the intention of tradition and para. 55, but the reality behind the symbol is rarely grasped.
As the Church grew in numbers over time the principle of receiving “of one bread” became problematic, though it seems that celebrants consecrated several loaves, not just one, and broke them at the fractio panis. In Rome, for example, the fractio was very lengthy, and I have come across sources from the mid to late first millennium that speak of the announcements being read as the communion bread was broken. [One wonders what parish announcements consisted of in 700 A.D.]
The development of the circular hosts we are familiar with today is a long tale for another day. Immediately after Vatican II there was a movement in some communities to locally bake loaves of bread suitable for use at Mass. The idea had some merit—the sign of the sacrament is better expressed in eating substantive bread, not the manufactured “Styrofoam wafers” as some mischievous souls put it. However, Canon Law is clear that the only ingredients permissible for communion bread are wheat flour and water; in the 1970’s and 1980’s I can recall endless debates over recipes and additives, but at the end of the day the amount of work to create a better symbol than the manufactured host has overwhelmed any wholesale move in that direction.
[The manufactured hosts have a long but not indefinite shelf life. I was celebrating the TV Mass for my diocese at a local studio when, during the fractio, the large celebrant’s host shattered in my hands. Thankfully there was no YouTube in those days.]
The second paragraph addressed the practice of “communion under both species,” or distribution of the consecrated bread and wine. I was quite surprised to learn some years ago that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) had not forbidden the practice. It is possible that reception of the cup was not revived after Trent because many Catholics viewed as a Protestant innovation, and the right of the faithful to have access to the cup was a rallying call of earlier reformers such as Jan Hus of Czechoslovakia, who was executed at the Council of Constance in 1415.
Medieval theologians developed the technical term “concomitance” to define the full presence of Christ in each of the Eucharistic species, bread or wine. Thus, one who receives communion under the form of bread alone receives the full Christ. Doctrinally speaking, it is not necessary to drink from the chalice. However, para. 55 reopens the discussion from the aspect of full liturgical reform, which includes the principle that sacramental rites should be as plain and direct as possible. Consequently, if the Scriptures speak of eating the bread and drinking the cup, the Mass presents a most suitable sacramental sign where full participation in the sacred meal is experienced, under the forms of bread and wine.
Vatican II did not drop this directive from the skies. Liturgists for nearly a century before the council had been studying the question of communion under both forms. The statement and directives in para. 55 were new to the public in 1963, however. The specifics of para. 55—the occasions when the laity might receive under both forms—are limited and tentative. The reservations were probably a combination of the theoretical and the practical. Picture the reaction of Cardinal Spellman of New York to the idea of offering the cup to the thousands who process through St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral.
There was and still is a sizeable faction in the Church that opposes regular offering of both the bread and the cup. The 2006 Vatican statement “Doctrinal Formation and Communion Under Both Kinds” is the most recent official instruction to address pastoral difficulties and dangers inherent to the practice. This statement probably did not satisfy all opponents of communion under two species; some feel that the Eucharist is so sacred that the only proper way to receive the sacrament is via consecrated bread alone on the tongue. It is true that the Eucharist is sacred, but our entire Redemption rests upon the reality of Jesus immersing himself completely in the human condition, which will always be imperfect and messy.
It is hard not to believe that at least some of the Fathers of Vatican II saw para. 55 as the first step toward universal practice, overseen by national conferences of bishops. While my minor seminary (1962-1968) did not offer the cup at the main conventual Mass, it became common practice for Masses of small groups—retreats and class masses, for example—to receive the cup. The practice transferred to parishes more slowly, mostly due to practical difficulties. My own parish today, with thousands of families, did not adopt the practice till the 1980’s. When I travel, I notice that a fair number of parishes do not provide the option. I suppose it comes down to pastoral will and full catechetical understanding, as the 2006 Vatican statement discusses. In one case I am aware of, the Bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire, has discontinued the use of the cup for the laity, but in checking the media coverage, I believe there are some sorts of isolated agendas here that are best restricted to Manchester.