A papal advisor has suggested that the Catholic obligation to attend Sunday Mass and to confess regularly could be abolished after the coronavirus pandemic.

– The form of confession today “is only one possibility among others”

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández – the Archbishop of La Plata, in Argentina, a former rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and a close theological advisor to Pope Francis – lamented in an interview April 27 that in the Church “we’re shoring up a structure from another era without envisioning effectively its substitute”.

Asked, specifically, whether the Church will be forced to revise its practices in the wake of the coronavirus – especially around the sacraments of communion and confession – Fernández reflected that “there are things that we sometimes believe unchangeable but that in reality are not”.

“The Sunday precept, for example, is not essential and is something that could fall”, the Argentinian prelate explained.

He added, too, that “the form of the sacrament of penance has changed greatly over the centuries”, making reference to the fact that priests have not always heard Catholics’ confessions in close physical proximity in the way that they do now.

“People who read the history of this sacrament for the first time are always amazed to realise that the current form [of confession] is only one possibility among others”, Fernández recalled.

As for other consequences of COVID-19 for the Church, the archbishop lamented that the institution has still not taken up Pope Francis’ invitation in his post-Amazon Synod apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia that laypeople take on more responsibility.

“Francis’s attempt with Querida Amazonia was to show that the great challenge is to empower the laity and to stop so closely uniting the priesthood and power”, Fernández explained.

The Pope’s proposal, he said, “is to ‘distribute’ power through new lay ministries and roles ‘endowed with authority'”.

“That unfortunately has not been picked up and serious work is not being done along these lines”, the Argentinian prelate lamented.

– “Not advisable” that the Church talk too much during the pandemic

The Archbishop of La Plata went on to warn that the coronavirus crisis is only just beginning and as such “we have a long time of distancing and quarantines” ahead of us which “undoubtedly requires us to reinvent ourselves”.

In the first place, in the Church, which in Argentina is participating “discreetly” in the COVID-19 recovery, according to Fernández, “because we understand that in the face of these extraordinary circumstances it’s necessary to be very humble and nobody should feel they’re a sage”.

“I think that in a situation like this it is not advisable to talk too much”, the archbishop said.

He recalled, however, that in the Church “we have a treasure of spirituality to help us cope with situations of pain, anguish, anxiety, etc.”, and that in these days “social networks have been filled with contributions that, from the faith, help us to survive in these moments of confinement”.

For the Church, “the message of a discreet, humble and at the same time collaborative and generous presence seems to me the most appropriate”, Fernández explained.

– The online Mass, “almost a contradiction”

Those messages of encouragement and support online apart, however – and although “many priests and bishops have seen that in online Masses we have more faithful than before” – “for me an online Mass is almost a contradiction”, the archbishop admitted.

He affirmed that “Mass needs flesh, sensory closeness, physical presence”.

“I think that we have to be very responsible to take care of the health and life of our people and that we cannot force the return of Mass with the people, but neither can we say that it does not matter to us or that we have to orient ourselves towards a virtual spirituality”, Fernández insisted.

As for the consequences of the coronavirus crisis for wider society, the archbishop warned that “some scientists maintain that pandemics will become more frequent… that has its causes, and should compel us to slow down a bit and rethink the world’s direction to prevent that from happening”.

“In any case, it will be necessary to take on a more austere life and allocate more resources to prevent and anticipate these situations”, Fernández said.

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