A theologian has blasted the “quasi-magical” Masses being offered online and on TV during the COVID-19 pandemic, lamenting that they give the impression “that grace can’t leave churches, while the virus travels around the world”.

– “A completely self-referential vision of what it means to be Church at this time”

“The insistence on replacing participation in the Eucharistic celebration with the virtual viewing of the same, without the presence of the faithful, seems to have been welcomed by conservatives and progressives, by bishops and laity, as a reality that must be so, without further ado”, Venezuelan theologian Rafael Luciani wrote in a powerful reflection on faith in the time of COVID-19.

“Clericalism is so deeply rooted in Church culture, at all levels, that the pastoral responses being offered in the face of the dramatic situation we are experiencing seem to go no further than the sacramental offer”, lamented Luciani, an associate professor at the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College in the US.

The Church that allows priests to offer “private” COVID-19 Masses to which the faithful have access only on television or on the internet has succumbed to “a completely self-referential vision of what it means to be Church at this time”, the Latin American pastoral theologian deplored.

– “The following of Jesus cannot be reduced to the space of worship”

“It seems that we have forgotten that the Eucharist is the Lord’s Supper and not the Mass, and that the following of Jesus cannot be reduced to the space of worship”, affirmed Luciani, who is also an advisor to the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM) and a theological consultant to the Latin American Confederation of Male and Female Religious (CLAR).

“Masses are seen and heard, but the Lord’s Supper, that is, the Eucharist, is celebrated and lived only when we congregate in an assembly”, the expert claimed, referring to the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium and recalling that “there is no ordained ministry outside of the common priesthood of all the faithful”.

– “Anchored to an image of the Church that believes that it owns God”

Luciani went on in his meditation to write that “during this time of silence and isolation, like Jesus in the desert, the ecclesiastical institution is called to undertake a journey of conversion”.

“The ecclesial reforms that are continuing to be made will only make sense if the Church recognises herself as sinful and in need of conversion”, the expert recalled, observing that “credibility comes from silent witness, not from preaching”.

What’s more, the words that we continue to use in the Church and the theological-pastoral offerings of these COVID-19 days “only answer the question of whether the faithful are receiving sacramental grace or not”, the theologian deplored.

“We remain anchored to an image of the Church that believes that it owns God, owns his grace and forgiveness, and that only places more burdens on people’s consciences, especially when today we are isolated by the pandemic and unable to approach a priest or to gather as an assembly”.

“Although it may not seem like it, all this is very contrary to the Church’s own tradition”, Luciani warned.

– “All of us have already been graced”

Theologian Luciani went on to argue that grace above all is desired, and not received, “as if God could be absent from our lives and as though the Church were the one who decides when he returns his divine presence to us”.

“Grace is God Himself who gives himself to us first as a gift, as an unconditional gift, embracing us from the depths of our consciences, welcoming our thoughts and feelings, and healing our fears and anxieties”, the Venezuelan professor insisted.

“All of us, in our homes and communities, have already been graced, embraced by God and forgiven.

“This was what Jesus himself revealed to us when he discovered that God was like a Father who loves us from the entrails of a mother.

“For this reason, Jesus was able to recognise more faith in the supposedly unfaithful and impure people of his time, in those far from the Temple and excluded by the priests, in those who did not attend celebratory rites or purifications”, the theologian recalled.

– A Church “that can only promise half forgiveness, a God who pauses his love”

“The current transmission of faith is in crisis”, was Luciani’s desperate denunciation of the COVID-19 Church, whom he warned “we gain nothing by repeating Tridentine models, already unsuccessful, which have not helped people to form and live an adult faith”.

“If we continue to be moved by clericalism, we will only be changing the forms – now virtual – but not the substance”, the theologian cautioned.

“There will be no conversion of the ecclesiastical institution and, when all this is over, we’ll still have all the same pastoral problems”.

Luciani doubled-down on his attack on the online-wandering Church of the coronavirus:

“The pastoral offer on the table today – or that which is being conveyed with the world that are being used – is so sad that it can only promise half forgiveness, a God who pauses his love”, the Venezuelan expert decried.

“In short, it seems that grace cannot leave temples, while the virus indeed travels around the world”.

– “Urgent” that the Church “listen and respond to people’s real problems”

“Faced with the current crisis, great pastoral creativity is required of all – and not just the magic recipes of a few”, the theologian criticised.

“It is urgent to listen and respond to people’s real problems: the need to feel accompanied, the anguish of not having a job or money to buy food, the fear of getting sick and not being properly cared for, the loneliness of isolation, the possibility of not being able to seeing a family member die or bury him or her after they have caught the virus”, Luciani set out.

“A sacramentalised Church is a self-referential Church, far from the Jesus of the Gospels. We can be very close to the ecclesiastical institution and very far from the Kingdom of God”, the theologian cautioned.

– Mass “just one of the answers”

“We are certainly in an irregular situation that needs immediate pastoral responses. But Mass is just one of those answers, but not the only one or the most important one right now”, Luciani insisted

“People are at home and need realistic messages that help them feel that God loves and embraces them personally, and not through the figure of an absent mediator to whom they will not have access” as is the case with online or TV mASSES.

“Focusing only on Mass online does not help pastorally. It is to continue maintaining the scheme of a private, clerical and sacred religion.

“Everything that can be done creatively based on the religious empowerment of people, without the mediation of the priest, is essential for a real and coherent pastoral response at this time”, Luciani advised.

– “Time to fast from the Bread and commune with the Word”

The theologian concluded his stirring reflection diagnosing the mistakes of the past in the Church that the coronavirus crisis could be a good opportunity to remedy.

“Having made the Christian life centre only around the church and worship has only contributed to alienating young people and so many others from the Catholic Church, because for a large majority the only benchmark of ecclesial life is the parish, with a Tridentine and ritualistic model, that has already proven unsuccesful”, Luciani stated.

“It is time to recover the Word and silence. Virtual media can be used to offer activities that help accompany and discern what is being lived from the Word of God that is incarnated in our homes today.

“If we do not recover the centrality of the Word, we will be devaluing the very meaning of the Eucharist, which consists of two parts equally: the celebration of the Word and the celebration of Bread, knowing that the celebration of Bread is born of the Word, and not upside down.

“If it is not possible to find us all as the People of God around the Bread, it is possible that we meet around the Word”, Luciani explained.

In the face of the impossibility of gathering as a Catholic community in the time of the coronavirus, the theologian suggested that “perhaps it is time to fast from the Bread and commune with the Word”, the theologian insisted.

“The Word that is born from silence, and which will help us heal what we carry in our hearts”, Luciani affirmed.

A fast from communion during the pandemic “would make us all equal, supportive and sharers of the same dignity, because there will not be some who receive the Bread while a majority commune only ‘spiritually’.

“As long as there is no fasting of bread for all, the Masses will continue without the People of God, as will the quasi-magical rites offered on television or online without any relation to the daily life of people”, the expert warned.

Novena’s full coverages of the challenges for the Church in the time of COVID-19:

Theologians propose ‘do-it-yourself’ sacraments to beat COVID-19, clericalism

Italian archdiocese warns people locked down over COVID-19 against dangers of digital “drugging”

COVID-19: Spanish bishop hits out at “bombardment” of faithful with livestreamed Masses

Opinion/analysis: COVID-19 “ghost Masses” no excuse for clericalism

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