Question: I attended a Mass in which incense was used. The altar, priest, offerings on the altar and the crucifix were censed, but the tabernacle was not. I asked two priests about this and they both said the tabernacle is not censed during Mass. I would like your explanation of this, since the tabernacle is so holy.
— Carmine Alfaro, Smithtown, N.Y.
Answer: The priests you spoke to are correct. The tabernacle is not censed when Mass is being celebrated. The explanation is that a distinction is properly made between the celebration of the Mass and the adoration of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. These are separate aspects of the mystery of the Eucharist.
This distinction is expressed architecturally. Since the Second Vatican Council, the tabernacle has been separated from the altar, placed either behind or near the altar or in a separate chapel, keeping the different aspects of the Eucharist in a separate but balanced relationship.
Even when the tabernacle is placed directly behind the altar, it is not censed during Mass — not because it is not important, but because it is not a point of focus during Mass. The altar and the various other elements censed during Mass receive this special sign of veneration so that attention is brought to them and they are kept within the focus of the congregation.
Question: Why is it that in some churches non-Catholic dignitaries and visiting Protestant choirs are permitted to receive holy Communion at Mass, while regular non-Catholic Christians are not allowed the same privilege? Does the Church maintain a double standard on Communion?
— Richard B. Luthin, Jacksonville, Fla.
Answer: The Church does not maintain a double standard. Normally, only Catholics in a state of grace may receive Communion. No exceptions are properly made for non-Catholic dignitaries or Protestant choirs.
The Catholic Church does allow Orthodox Christians to receive Communion at Mass; however, Orthodox churches do not, for the most part, allow their members to avail themselves of this possibility. The Catholic Church also allows Catholics to receive Communion on occasion in Orthodox churches; but again, Orthodox churches do not permit Catholics to participate in this way in their Eucharist.
The fundamental Catholic principle against intercommunion is that the reception of Communion involves union with the Catholic Church itself. In the Eucharist we not only receive Christ, but we express the truth that we are in full communion with all that the Church is, professes and believes.
For a Protestant to receive Communion at Mass is tantamount to saying that he or she fully believes and accepts the whole range of Catholic faith and morals (including the papacy, the Marian doctrines, Church authority), and, generally, no Protestant would wish to make such a statement. (One who would is ready to be received into the Church.)
That Protestants are not invited to receive Communion in the Church is in no way a moral judgment on the state of the souls of other Christians or an act of ecumenical rudeness. Catholics and Protestants are not yet in full communion of faith; receiving Communion would be a false sign. Protestants who understand this principle (though they may disagree with it) do not feel slighted.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.