German and Austrian theologians are proposing ‘do-it-yourself’ sacraments to beat coronavirus lockdowns as well as clericalism.

– “Where two or three are gathered…”: consecrating the Mass at home

If a Pope can impart a “complete indulgence” by television to the whole world – just as Francis did March 27 in a special Urbi et orbi blessing from an empty St. Peter’s Square – “why then can’t the bishop… celebrate the Eucharist for his entire diocese, with believers in front of their screens actively participating and making this not just a spiritual, but an actual communion with bread (and wine) at the table?”, asked dean of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna, Johann Pock, in an article also last Friday.

“Who can say that Jesus is present here under the different forms of word and sacrament?”, the pastoral theologian continued.

Pock thereby implied that no priest is needed to consecrate the Eucharistic elements, and that Catholics can do it themselves at home.

“And if this house community does this without a screen — isn’t Jesus present?”, the theologian wrote.

He explained that his proposal could serve to reorient the laity away from a priest-exclusive focus “towards recognising their common baptismal calling” and the “priesthood of all believers.”

“Wouldn’t that be a chance to say: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the middle of them?'”, the Viennese theologian said of his proposed DIY Masses at home.

– “Sacramental law provisions are not set for eternity; they can be adjusted”

Along with Pock, another theologian who has come out in favour of ‘do-it-yourself’ sacraments at home in the absence of public services during the coronavirus pandemic is Dortmund academic Thomas Ruster.

Ruster said in a March 30 interview with – a news service of the German Bishops’ Conference – that the lack of the physical presence of a priest during the COVID-19 outbreak needn’t be “an absolute obstacle” to the celebration of the Church’s rites.

“The Word as a word of blessing and promise is the decisive factor”, Ruster explained.

“The Word is strengthened and underlined by the physical sign. But it is also perceptible and understandable without the sign: It is a question of the medium how to get the Word across”.

The theological justification of DIY sacraments apart, priests “must decide what they do on their own responsibility”, the Dortmund theologian continued.

“I would also encourage you not to be too restricted by legal obligations”, Ruster advised priests, explaining that “sacramental law provisions are not set for eternity; they can be adjusted and changed”.

– “We have the right to take our measure from Jesus on how to deal with sacraments in practice”

As for the objection that no sacrament can be valid without physical contact, Ruster said the late adoption of the laying-on of hands at ordination – only mandated definitively by the Church in 1947 – “shows that there is some leeway”.

“The laying on of hands had not been considered a sign for centuries, so it would be conceivable to carry out the sacrament without direct contact — even if that is not the case at the moment”, the Dortmund academic said.

As for confession, “there is no need for an immediate physical presence”, Ruster explained, since “in confession, people have long wondered what the bodily sign [of the sacrament] is and have not found one”.

“Confession is thus possible as a ‘remote sacrament’ and does not require direct physical presence”, the German theologian insisted, explaining that the rite of reconciliation could well “be carried out in other forms” apart from a one-to-one situation with a priest, “for example by video conference, online or by telephone”.

In terms of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, Ruster also argued that too can be carried out in a “media-mediated” form and “without direct physical contact”, through, for example, “an anointing ceremony broadcast on television or the internet”.

The model for the “remote sacrament” of extreme unction could well be Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant, since Christ performs in this New Testament episode “a kind of distance healing… without facing the patient face to face”.

The biblical quote “speak the word and my servant shall be healed… can certainly be used as a creative interpretation to practice sacraments in this new mode of distance”, the Dortmund professor explained.

“What sacrament means can best be recognised from Jesus himself and from his actions, because he is the primeval sacrament, the sacrament of God par excellence: God who enters our world”, Ruster concluded.

“Therefore, we also have the right to take our measure from Jesus on how to deal with sacraments in practice”.

More stories on Novena on the Church’s responses to the coronavirus:

German, Austrian bishops insist coronavirus “not God’s punishment” but “invitation to think”

Vatican urges priests to offer special Masses, Good Friday prayer for end to the coronavirus

Spanish coronavirus cleric victim, hospital chaplain tell of days of “intensive priesthood”

Coronavirus: Spanish bishop hits out at “bombardment” of faithful with livestreamed Masses

Catholic coronavirus irresponsibility continues to put lives at risk in Italy, beyond

Opinion/analysis: Coronavirus “ghost Masses” no excuse for clericalism


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