Is the Consecration Gradual?

ROME, NOV. 25, 2003 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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Q: I serve as a member to the RCIA team in our parish and recently it was asked, Why don’t they ring the bells anymore at Mass? The answer that was given by the DRE was something I have never heard before. It was stated that there is not one magical moment, and that the bread and wine gradually become the Body and Blood of Christ through all the prayers at Mass. Have you ever heard of this? — S.G., Youngstown, Ohio

A: First, there is no reason why a bell should not be rung at the consecration. This is still the practice at papal Masses and is explicitly foreseen in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 150, which states: «A little before the consecration, when appropriate, a server rings a bell as a signal to the faithful. According to local custom, the server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice.»

As to the theological hypothesis of a gradual consecration given by the director of religious education: To put it mildly, it would appear to overstate the conclusions of certain valuable contributions to eucharistic theology which have sought to emphasize the advantage of considering the Eucharistic Prayer in its entirety, rather than limiting one’s attention to the formula of consecration, in order to achieve a fuller and richer concept of the eucharistic mystery.

Concentration on the moment of consecration tends to privilege above all the aspect of the Real Presence, while taking the entire Eucharistic Prayer into account brings out more fully other aspects such as the Eucharist as memorial of Christ’s sacrifice, his resurrection and ascension, the role of the Holy Spirit, the aspect of mediation, its role in building up the Church, etc. In many ways this is the procedure used by the Holy Father in his recent encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia.»

The use of this method, however, in no way contradicts traditional Catholic theology as to a specific moment in which the bread and wine are changed into Christ’s body and blood at the consecration. The concept of a gradual transformation from bread to Eucharist is no more sustainable than the idea of a nonhuman embryo becoming an almost human, or a not quite human, fetus, gradually transforming itself into a human being. There can be no stages in the eucharistic mystery: It is either bread or it is Christ, there is nothing in between.

This truth is also indicated by the rubrics of the Mass which explicitly state that the priest genuflect in adoration after consecrating the bread, and again after the consecration of the wine. This rubric would be senseless, not to say idolatrous, if Christ were not already fully present from that moment.

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Follow-up: Protestant Songs at Mass

A reader says he was «totally shocked» by our comments on liturgical music (see Nov. 11). He asks if I «have any sense how critical a role music plays in the Liturgy for young people» and believes that «To move back to traditional, pre-Vatican music is contrary to what John Paul II has demonstrated as he has reached out to our younger members. He has participated in World Youth Day celebrations …»

While I am sorry for causing distress to anybody I do not believe that my earlier response called either for a total return to pre-conciliar music nor for any prohibition of new pieces. In fact, I actually recommended the work of Monsignor Marco Frisina, who wrote almost all the liturgical music for the 2000 World Youth Jubilee.

Certainly the pre-conciliar world had its share of maudlin dirges which should not be resuscitated. But this does not mean that anything produced before 1962 is fit only for octogenarians and the trash can.

While no expert on the role of music in the religious formation of youth, I firmly believe that young people — like older folk — cannot be painted with the same brush with respect to tastes and inclinations.

My own experience with parish youth choirs has taught me that normal young men and women easily understand that, even when recent compositions are adopted, the liturgy demands a musical style that is different from secular or other contexts.

For example, during the heady days of the Jubilee 2000 Youth Encounter, 2 million young people sang the theme song «Emanuel» all over Rome, except during the Holy Father’s Mass, as its text and style, while musically attractive and religious in content, were not orientated toward the liturgy.

I have also learned that young people can appreciate and sing with gusto good music from any epoch if presented to them without prejudice. They can even take a liking to the more common Gregorian melodies, especially those of the common prayers of the Mass. Widespread knowledge of a couple of Gregorian Masses is expressly recommended by the Second Vatican Council and later documents and would be most useful for the ever increasing number of international encounters.

Several readers asked me to comment as to the propriety and orthodoxy of particular hymns and songs, for example singing patriotic songs such as «America the Beautiful.»

It is unfortunately impossible for me to deal with each example, but as a general principle, since most regulation of liturgical music falls within the province of the bishops’ conference and the local bishop, one may trust that a song approved by them has a certain guarantee of overall orthodoxy.

Sometimes these texts may be subject to several interpretations, such as one sample a correspondent sent in saying, «Sing a new church into being, one in faith and love and praise.» Since this particular song received episcopal approval, one may suppose that in this case the novelty refers to the inner renewal of the Church’s members and is not proposing a Church other than the one founded by Christ.

Episcopal approval, though offering assurance of doctrinal orthodoxy, does not guarantee musical or literary quality or doctrinal clarity. Pastors, with the help of their music directors, should select these texts with great care lest the legitimate poetic license enjoyed by composers lead to confusion among the faithful.

Composers of liturgical music, aware of the importance of their mission, should also strive to present the truths of the faith as clearly as possible.

While patriotic hymns should not be the norm, local custom may allow for them on special occasions such as Independence Day. Healthy patriotism has always been considered a Christian virtue. Nonetheless, even when permitted by the bishops, it appears most appropriate to reserve them as closing hymns, sung after the blessing and dismissal, rather than during Mass itself.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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