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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I had business in the neighborhood on the Monday after Ascension, so I determined to seek out the parish church of that name to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. The church is an attractive modern structure in the tidy, upper-middle-class community. Unlike many Catholic churches today, the front door at Ascension was open, and cars of day-care workers clustered in the parking lot. 

Inside, the church is typical of the minimalist school of liturgical environment: little art, no kneelers, movable walls to create “meeting rooms” adjoining the nave. It’s not my favorite style, particularly when done badly, as it almost always is. Someone asked me why churches still adhere to minimalism, an aesthetic fashion of the past few decades in all art forms. “Because,” I said, “churches are inherently conservative; they are always trying to leap onto bandwagons that have long since passed by.”

Yet none of that mattered to me as I stood in the entrance of the church. I was looking for Jesus, for his ineffable Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. That Presence is what drew me into the Catholic Church. Not spying a sanctuary lamp, I began searching for the adoration chapel. To one side stood a large wooden box with crosses on it, but I could see no way to open it, so I concluded it was not a tabernacle. I checked all the doors I could find, even those of “meeting rooms.” One of them led to the day-care center, where all the children napped in a darkened room. I could find no sign of a tabernacle anywhere.

I exited into a hallway leading to the back door of the church. There on my left was a small chapel. A bench and some chairs offered room for eight or ten worshipers. I knelt to greet Jesus. From the hallway came shouts and conversation, as well as cigarette fumes. The tabernacle lamp flickered erratically; it had burned down to a shallow puddle of molten wax. At least the tabernacle itself was impressive: an Egyptian-looking creation flanked by candlestands.

After my short stay with our ascended Lord, I rose to leave. Only then did I notice a second “tabernacle” in the corner opposite the first—same exotic ornamentation, same candlestands, but holding a gilt-covered Bible.

Yes, yes, I know that in Dei Verbum the Second Vatican Council said that the Church “has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord . . .” But that passage goes on to qualify itself: “insofar as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.”

In other words, Scripture is integral to the liturgy whose consummation is the Eucharist. In the General Instruction on the Roman Missal adds that, of the readings at Mass, the “greatest reverence” accords to the Gospel and that the book itself receives “marks of honor.” 

Nothing in any document suggests we should worship the Bible—or that the book is remotely equivalent to the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. Yet the unspoken message of the chapel is: Jesus = Bible. Sound familiar? A Protestant might think so. 

The planners at Ascension parish evidently misread the Church’s directives—or, more likely, succumbed to the advice of “liturgy experts.” Predominantly liberal, even heterodox, these specialists have wrought more mischief in the Church in the past thirty years than even renegade theologians. The average Catholic may never read a book of speculative theology, but he is almost sure to be “re-educated” by a liturgical authority.

If these experts knew and heeded the Church’s mind, their services would be invaluable. But too often their notions are culled secondhand from professors or questionably orthodox publications like Modern Liturgy. The result is embarrassingly bad (and prohibited) liturgical dances, pseudo-ceremonies that borrow from New Age sources, and a meanness in public worship space that would do credit to the Puritans.

One such “liturgy expert” recently made the astonishing claim that the holy oils are “due the same reverence” as the Blessed Sacrament. (Hey, if it’s good enough for the Bible. . . .) When challenged, she declared that the prayers over the bread and wine are similar to the prayers over the oils. She seemed to have no consciousness of the distinction between a sacrament and a sacramental—nor, indeed, between worship and veneration.

My suggestion to the pastor of Ascension parish: Forget the advice of such “experts.” Reread the documents of Vatican II and related documents on the liturgy and Eucharist. Post prominent signs directing parishioners and visitors to the adoration chapel—and signs in the hallway outside reading “No Smoking” and “Quiet, Please.” Catechize your flock to show true reverence for sacred space and to join with the Church in unity of belief and worship—they do kneel during the consecration, don’t they?

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