An Iraqi Patriarch has hit out at Cardinal Robert Sarah for creating “confusion” on COVID-19 Masses, accusing the Vatican liturgy tsar of holding to a position both “superficial” and “neither bold nor heroic”.

– Forced to speak out to “clarify… confusion” caused by Vatican liturgy chief

Cardinal Louis Sako, the Patriarch of Babylon and head of the Chaldean Church, said he was forced to speak out after an Arabic translation of an interview attributed to Cardinal Sarah, the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discpline of the Sacraments in the Vatican, “had a wide echo among our priests”.

Though Sako admitted he personally was “unable to ascertain the accuracy of this interview”, AsiaNews, the official news agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, identified the cardinal’s statements as having come from an interview he gave May 2 to the Daily Compass website, which was subsequently picked up by other outlets.

In a message to the faithful, Sako wrote that he wanted to “clarify” a number of points raised by Cardinal Sarah in his interview, which Sako lamented had caused “some confusion” among his priests.

First among the clarifications that Sako wanted to make was that the suspension of public prayer and liturgical life to contain the spread of the coronavirus was only “temporary”, comparable to students and employees working from home and, moreover, the same for all religions.

Cardinal Sarah had argued, in contrast, that “nobody can prevent a priest from confessing and giving communion, nobody has the right to stop him. The sacrament must be respected. So even if it is not possible to attend Masses, the faithful can ask to be confessed and to receive Communion”.

The second point Cardinal Sako made was that “the coronavirus pandemic has created a positive environment for human solidarity, and people are ready to fight pain and its causes in their own lives and in the life of society. This is what we see in the dedication of doctors, priests, volunteers and service staff”.

That “positive” aspect of the COVID-19 crisis was a point that was not even mentioned by Cardinal Sarah in his Daily Compass interview.

– Online Masses, “an opportunity to be closer to Christ”

Cardinal Sako also wrote that “live streaming the Mass (audio/video) or broadcasting it via TV from churches helps the faithful participate and fills them with consolation and trust amid their fears”.

“This should be respected; this is what we see from the faithful’s comments”, the Patriarch said, adding that Catholics also find in streamed Masses “an opportunity that helps them to be closer to Christ and the spirit of the Gospel”.

Cardinal Sarah had denigrated online and TV Masses, saying that “we cannot get used to this, God became incarnate, He is flesh and blood, He is not a virtual reality”.

Sarah had also criticised streamed Masses as being “highly misleading for priests. In Mass the priest has to look at God, instead he is getting used to looking at the camera, as if it were a show. We cannot go on like this”.

Sako responded that in his own experience, the online Masses he has celebrated from the Patriarchate during COVID-19 “fill[] our hearts with faith, trust and joy”.

“We do not look at the camera nor the screen; we look at the bread and the wine transformed by the Holy Spirit, through our faith and our prayer, into the body and blood of Christ”, Sako wrote, explaining that “the faithful who follow us on screen pray devoutly with us, recite the prayers and sing with us, and repeatedly affirm that they wish to receive communion”.

The Babylon Patriarch added that the Church “must take advantage” of the “very positive spirituality” that has emerged online during the pandemic, and in the light of that “review the way it celebrates the sacraments”.

– Christ’s presence in Eucharist “sacramental”, not “biological”

One other point Sako made in response to Sarah was a comment on the latter’s scorn for creative proposals for receiving the Eucharist during lockdown, including ‘do-it-yourself’ Communion with ‘take-away’ hosts pre-consecrated by priests and available for pick-up from churches, which Sarah called an “absurdity”.

“The Eucharist must be treated with faith, we cannot treat it as a trivial object, we are not at the supermarket. This is total madness”, Sarah deplored with respect to that particular proposal.

But Sako wrote that “the necessary changes [to liturgical practice] during the coronavirus crisis are not comparable to going to supermarkets. We follow our priests and take care of the connection with them and their guide”.

“Christ’s presence is a sacramental presence, which is accomplished through the faith of the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not a biological presence”, Sako furthermore reflected, adding that “the identity of the priest and his spirituality are not pre-packaged magic, but are faith and conviction that mature and grow continuously through ongoing education”.

– “Communion in the hand is not a novelty”

One final point of contention between Sarah and Sako was the former’s view that during COVID-19 “the faithful are free to receive Communion in the mouth or hand”. “There is already a rule in the Church and this must be respected”, Cardinal Sarah explained.

Sako replied to the Prefect for Divine Worship that while there may be a Church rule permitting communion on the tongue, “giving communion in the hand is not a novelty, but an ancient church tradition. Many Fathers, like Saint Ephrem, speak of it. Most Orthodox Churches follow this practice”.

“Undoubtedly, the desire of those who ask for communion must be respected, but priests must observe certain preventive measures”, Sako added, insisting that “explaining these measures superficially is neither bold nor heroic”.

– Call to priests and bishops “not to pay attention” to Sarah

Sako ended his message to Catholics with a call to priests and bishops “not to pay attention to views opposed” to the necessary COVID-19-induced changes to sacramental practice, which he recalled “are temporary”.

“Once the coronavirus pandemic [is] over, the Church will review these issues with confidence, willingness and a clear vision, to help the faithful remove doubts and understand the various views, assimilate them, make them their own and live their faith in daily life”, Sako concluded.

More on Novena on the Eucharist during and after COVID-19:

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Portuguese cardinal discourages communion on the tongue: “Christ said ‘Take and eat’, not ‘Open your mouth’”

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.