Father Hickey’s Notes: Our Catholic Heritage
Dear Friends, peace!
Perhaps not all of us are aware of the rich heritage we have as Catholics, especially as regards the Most Holy Eucharist. In earlier times, especially in England during the Middle Ages, the sense of Christ’s Real Presence was powerfully expressed in the turns of phrase that ordinary Catholics used concerning the Blessed Sacrament. For various reasons people usually received Our Lord in Holy Communion only at Easter, and then with serious preparation, often involving making peace with enemies, and of course going to confession during Holy Week. So, devotion to Our Lord’s Real Presence, with a focus on looking at the Sacred Host, was very high. For example, the Church bell would be rung at the time of the Holy, Holy. People would often drop what they were doing and rush into Church to look at the Host at the elevation while the tower bell and the hand bell(s) would ring. Many medieval churches had a “rood screen” separating the nave of the church from the sanctuary and even today one can see in these still remaining screens small holes through which folks would peer at the lifting up of the sacrament.
Recently I reread a short book about a “solitary” of the Medieval Period, the 15th century in England. His name was Richard Raynal. He lived alone in simplicity, in constant prayer, and in the story, he feels called by the Lord to speak to the king and journeys to London. The narrator of the story is the priest who is his spiritual director and before Richard begins his journey, we are blessed with a description of his going to Mass and his attendance is described by a most lovely and thought-provoking phrase. He is said “to hear Mass and there see his Maker.” The author, Robert Hugh Benson, offers a footnote: “This is the common medieval phrase” in which, as I have mentioned, the elevation of the Host and the Chalice was noted as the moment in which a believer would “see God”, “see one’s Maker.”
There is another turn of phrase used by folks in the Middle Ages to explain a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in Church. In the same short book, the priest narrator explains that he and Richard had visited a small country church by saying “After we had adored God Almighty in the church” Again the author gives a footnote: “That is, God in the Blessed Sacrament.” This same True Presence is with us today, as you know. I found a paragraph by Pierre-Marie Dumont in Magnificat for Holy Week, 2021. I have adapted it slightly and offer it to you as a commentary on the Elevation of the Host at every Catholic celebration of the Eucharist:
‘Here then the Body of Christ is lifted up for us. So at each Mass at the Elevation the divine promise is fulfilled. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Jn 12:32). ‘ Dumont continues: ‘At the moment of elevation, here is Jesus opening his arms to us, embracing us and incorporating us in the offering of his life to his Father, to our Father, for the greater Glory of God and the salvation of the world.’ At every Mass ‘for a brief moment the veil of ordinariness is lifted (and) Jesus is present as He really is in His human nature suffused with His Divine Glory as the radiant, majestic Son of God.’ This sentence is adapted from Mary Healy’s commentary, The Gospel of Mark, p. 173. The quotes above are from Robert Hugh Benson’s book, The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary, The Newman Bookshop, Westminster, Maryland, 1945, pp. 85 & 51. For further reading about adoration of the Sacred Host see The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional Religion in England, c.1400 – 1580, Eamon Duffy, Yale, 1992, p. 95f. It offers a wonderful understanding of Catholic faith in England before the Reformation.
God bless. JFH