ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
32. The liturgy makes distinctions between persons according to their liturgical function and sacred Orders, and there are liturgical laws providing for due honors to be given to civil authorities. Apart from these instances, no special honors are to be paid in the liturgy to any private persons or classes of persons, whether in the ceremonies or by external display.
Given that this is “hurricane weekend” in these parts, I was a bit relieved to see that Paragraph 32 did not require too much heavy lifting. The text is probably heavily influenced by European circumstances of many centuries where powerful princes, burghers, and other dignitaries enjoyed places of honor in the sanctuary or some other prominent place.
Para. 32 emphasizes that the only demonstration of “rank” in worship involves the official ministers of the Mass performing their appropriate functions. The Catholic Church has established policies for the occasions when there might be pressure to honor or acknowledge dignitaries in fields of endeavor outside of the church. What immediately comes to mind are the weddings and particularly the funerals of heads of state, etc. The Church has an official guide about heads of state attending Mass, but I have searched fruitlessly this AM for the document.
However, the official Church guide on funerals in general gives us an idea of how to best utilize the rites of Christian Death in unusual circumstances. For example, over the past few decades at funeral Masses it is not uncommon after the distribution of the Eucharist to see pastors allow one or more eulogies on behalf of the deceased to be addressed to those in attendance. The Church officially discourages this, but not for the reason you think. All the prayers and readings of a funeral Mass have the theological purpose of assisting the deceased on the journey to see God. Catholics hold that everyone has sinned, so not even the best of us goes straight to heaven. All human need intercessory prayers, or “prayers for the souls in Purgatory.” Have you ever noticed how eulogists (and the general Catholic public, for that matter) talk about their beloved dead as already in heaven? Eulogists undue the entire thrust of the Mass. And I want my prayers when I’m dead!!!
That said, the Church does recognize the value and the appropriateness of eulogies, and it applies these guidelines for their presentation. “A brief eulogy may take place in this order of preference: after the vigil service [the evening before]; at a reception following the Funeral Mass; before the Funeral Mass begins; following the prayers of committal at the cemetery; prior to the final commendation and farewell…. For those involved in civic organizations and those with additional affiliations, patriotic or fraternal services may also be conducted following the burial rite.” Again, the purpose of these guidelines is the integrity of the purpose of the Liturgy, which invokes the saving power of Christ for forgive the sins of the deceased and prepare for the full vision of God, the beatific vision.
Another facet of Church life is prominence at the liturgy in terms of congregational seating. Pews are a recent innovation to Catholic life. Although introduced into churches in the middle ages, permanent pews were actually more of a Protestant innovation after the Reformation. There was a bit of symbolic polemic here. Given the Protestant emphasis upon preaching, the evolution to large and artistic wooden pews was spurred by the need to sit for long periods of time during sermons. Families of prominence donated elegant pews—for their own use, of course—in what we would call today the “first few rows.”
Catholics, on the other hand, whose worship included the Eucharistic Prayer, the Our Father, and the distribution of the Eucharist, did not require complex seating arrangements, and went with a simpler “bench.” I found a taste of pew polemics from the English writer Lytton Strachey in 1918, commenting upon high church Protestantism and Catholic egalitarianism: "Manning had been removing the high pews from the church in Brighton, and putting in open benches in their place. Everyone knew what that meant; everyone knew that the high pew was one of the bulwarks of Protestantism, and that an open bench had upon it the taint of Rome." (No one turns a phrase like that anymore.)
Further down Sacrosanctum Concilium there is a directive that the celebrations of sacraments be marked by noble simplicity, and that directive raises the question of one of Catholicism’s ostentatious and superfluous external displays at liturgical celebrations, the various Catholic orders of knights, including the most prominent, the Knights of Columbus. If you are not familiar with the K of C, it was founded in the late 1800’s as a Catholic service organization for men, and its special appeal was its mission to sell life insurance to working men who were shut out of mainstream policies in Protestant America.
You might have seen the news stories a few weeks ago about the change in the international uniform of the Knights, with a fair number of the brotherhood about the change. The old ceremonial garb was and is a remarkable sight. And, unfortunately, Catholics attempting to follow liturgies of First Communion, Corpus Christi, and other solemn events have had their lines of vision obstructed by the Knights, so they know very well what the old garb looks like.
It seems so strange in 2017 to describe an event in 1956—particularly one so bizarre by today’s standards—but at my sister’s first communion, the Knights placed themselves, standing, in front of the congregation (kneeling), and at the moment of the Consecration, withdrew long metal swords from their equally metal holsters, held them high in the air, and saluted the consecrated host. We have Knights in my parish, but they are a low-key men’s club-service organization who do not intrude into the “noble simplicity.”
However, in Catholic “blog-world,” I do come across complaints about the Knights creating obstacles at First Communion Masses. One mother, whose child was making her first communion at her parish Mass, reported that when her 4-year-old son saw them come forward in full attire, he yelled out, “O boy, pirates!” I searched YouTube to see if I could find a clip of a First Communion Mass, but I had to settle for this, which I quickly dubbed the “all chiefs and no Indians” Mass.
Para. 32 might not have had armed fraternal organizations in mind at the time of composition, but if the shoe fits….