A priest’s example helps show the value of eucharistic gifts

Father John A. Kiley

Father John Farley was a legendary philosophy professor at Our Lady of Providence Seminary College in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. An insightful teacher and a clever preacher, Father Farley would arrive five minutes late for class with his signature cup of coffee, lengthy cigarette butt and scruffy cassock.

When not commenting on Peter Abelard or Duns Scotus, he would be tossing a basketball in the gym, a sideline that belied his small stature. Father Farley eventually became pastor of my home parish, St. Charles in Woonsocket, where he would tease the staid congregation by wearing red socks at midnight Mass or toss the skirt of his cassock over his head in imitation of a nun’s habit. Along with his two sisters who are Sisters of Mercy, Father Farley was one of many vocations from St. Michael Parish in South Providence. True to his priesthood, he is buried with many of his congregation in St. Charles Cemetery near Woonsocket.

Father Farley had the dubious privilege of being a seminary professor during the transition period from the old Tridentine church of his youth to the post-Vatican II church of his later years. Although Father Farley could be a great comedian, he happily had a profound appreciation of what the Catholic Church, both pre- and post-Vatican II, truly meant. One excess of the post counciliar church was the tossing out of all symbols. Everything should be readily understandable and preferably understated. Chalices had to be ceramic. Vestments had to be humble; polyester replaced brocade. Biblical banners had to be simple; felt and burlap were the norms. Distinct clerical attire and religious garb became barriers to personal rapport. Sermons bowed to dialogue homilies. Confessional penances had to be practical. Forget the three Hail Marys; polishing your brother’s shoes or making your sister’s bed was more relevant. And of course, the bread and wine at the eucharistic table had to be verifiable bread and certifiable wine. A crusty loaf from Zaccanini’s Bakery and a straw-covered bottle of Chianti from Haxton’s graced many an altar table even if not employed for the actual consecration. Everyone would get the point. Realism was in fashion; symbolism was banished.

A group of us savants – perhaps it was when we were deacons – inquired of Father Farley regarding the suitability of making the wafers for Communion more breadlike and of presenting wine in a manner more typical of the vintner’s craft. Father Farley, knowingly standing apart from the trend of the times, observed that no matter how realistic was the loaf presented or how down-to-earth was the wine offered, the two elements represented something beyond themselves. The bread was not on the altar to draw attention. The bread was there as a conduit for the sacred body of Christ. The altar bread was a symbol of something greater. The wine was there to be a vehicle for the precious blood of Christ. No matter how excellent its vintage or picturesque its cask, the wine was meant to stand for something beyond itself. The quaint uniqueness of the traditional liturgical elements – little wafers of bread and token drops of wine – forced communicants to search beyond the merely observable for a weightier meaning, specifically the veiled but actual body and blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

Some post-Vatican II innovators, just like Luther, Calvin and their sympathizers, were consciously or unconsciously transforming Sunday worship from a sacrificial banquet into a fellowship meal. Their preference for the actual over the symbolic, or better, for the literal over the sacramental, was an error that Father Farley saw the post-Vatican II church embracing. It was the same error that Protestants made when they swapped the sacraments for the Bible, and it was the same error that Jesus’ diffident disciples made when they abandoned him after his declaration that his flesh was real food and his blood real drink. The value of a symbol was lost on them. All sacraments are by their very nature symbols; they represent something greater, and they produce something greater. Boldly overwhelming the actual body and blood of Christ with a more realistic loaf and a more practical bottle is at best misleading, possibly deceptive, and maybe even dishonest. The Bread of Life is above all the body of Christ. The former must never eclipse the latter.