In coronavirus times, Catholics around the world have accepted that, for the foreseeable future, “going to Mass'” means watching a solitary priest say the rite online.
But have we been too quick to assent to that paradigm shift in our sacramental practice?
What does the drastic change in our relationship to the Eucharist say about who we are as a Church today, and about who we’re likely to be as a Church when the pandemic is over and done with?
No shortage of conservative Catholic commentators, priests, bishops and cardinals have blasted as a capitulation to the State the Church’s decision, in many places, to follow government guidelines and ban for the time being group gatherings, such as Masses.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a fierce opponent of Pope Francis’ reforms of the Church, attacked just this March 21, for example, the secular – and apparently now religious – tendency “to view prayer, devotions and worship like any other activity [going to the cinema, a restaurant or a sports match were Burke’s examples]… which is not essential and therefore can be cancelled for the sake of taking every precaution to curb the spread of a deadly contagion”.
“In considering what is needed to live, we must not forget that our first consideration is our relationship with God”, Burke wrote in a letter published on his website.
“That is why it is essential for us, at all times and above all in times of crisis, to have access to our churches and chapels, to the Sacraments, and to public devotions and prayers”.
“In combatting the evil of the coronavirus, our most effective weapon is… our relationship with Christ through prayer and penance, and devotions and sacred worship”, Burke said.
But there is another – shall we say less supernatural? – reason to think twice about the coronavirus-related bans on public celebrations of the Mass that the cardinal also questioned.
That reason has to do, as the German liturgical scholars Albert Gerhards, Benedikt Kranemann and Stephan Winter so perceptively pointed out, with the reality that livestreamed Eucharists run the risk of conveying the impression that the Mass is the private possession of the priest saying it.
Coronavirus “ghost Masses” without the physical presence of the faithful ignore the teaching of the Second Vatican Council “that the liturgy is enacted communally and publicly by all the baptised”, the scholars pointed out.
“Thus the Church came and comes entirely into its own when a local community gathers for worship in its differentiated membership, above all on Sundays and feast days”, Gerhards, Kranemann and Winter recalled.
“Private celebration in particular is not compatible with this understanding of Eucharist”, the experts warned.
Urging against a return to the medieval spirituality of the “private Mass” – in which “the sign of God’s encounter with humanity in the midst of the world is not communal celebration, but rather a cultic act which the priest performs correctly” – Gerhards, Kranemann and Winter deplored that in coronavirus livestreamed Masses they saw “the painful and possibly fateful resurrection of things rightly done away with”.
“Concerning what happens in secret in the sense of spiritual connectedness, we easily come to a double exclusion via social media presentation: within, the priest exclusively celebrating and communicating; without, the laity reduced to virtual presence and ‘spiritual Communion'”.
Gerhards, Kranemann and Winter also denounced the spectacle of priests and bishops processing through cities with monstrances containing the consecrated Host in heroic attempts to ward off coronavirus.
“A connection to the celebration of the Eucharist, which is a prerequisite for Eucharistic devotion, is no longer present here. This is no longer acceptable today and does damage to the liturgy”, the scholars cautioned.
“Vicarious representation of the community cannot credibly be exhibited by one individual person”, they continued, adding that “if Mass continues to be celebrated in parishes, the priest alone cannot credibly be the tangible representative. Only a community, however small, can”.
What, then, is the answer to the dilemma that keeping alive an authentic understanding of the Mass in coronavirus times by allowing more than a priest to physically attend the celebration of the rite would mean disobeying the instructions of health authorities?
Gerhards, Kranemann and Winter are careful to point out that in no way should Catholics be exempt from social distancing and/or quarantine regulations, and especially that “churches too must be guided by scientific recommendations and hold to protective measures undertaken by civil authorities”.
They did question, however, that the focus and priority of dioceses around the world these days seem to be directed to the live broadcast of Masses, to the exclusion of Vespers or other forms of prayer.
Still, however, Gerhards, Kranemann and Winter had hope that the coronavirus wouldn’t condemn the Church to a return to a past of bad clericalist and superstitious habits.
“In the best case, the crisis could contribute to an enrichment of liturgical assemblies, which hopefully will soon take place again, because it uncovers and activates slumbering charisms and gifts”, the scholars concluded, praising for their “entirely prophetic character” the images coming in from Italy of quarantined neighbours singing and calling out to each other from their balconies.