(Source: CD/Vatican News)

There is an urgent need to return post-COVID-19 to a normal experience of Christian life through the physical presence of the faithful at Mass, said Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

In a letter addressed to the presidents of bishops’ conferences, Cardinal Sarah insisted that “virtual” services cannot compare to, and cannot replace, personal participation in the liturgy.

Cardinal Sarah’s letter, bearing the title, “Let us return to the Eucharist with joy!” was published Saturday with the approval of Pope Francis, which he granted on September 3.

Communitarian dimension of the Christian life

“The pandemic caused by the new coronavirus has produced upheavals” not only in social and familial relationships “but also in the life of the Christian community, including in the liturgical dimension,” writes Cardinal Sarah.

He notes, “this community dimension has a theological meaning: God is a relationship of Persons in the Most Holy Trinity” and God “puts Himself in relationship with man and woman and calls them in turn to relationship with Him.”

So, while pagans built temples to the various deities, to which the people had no access, “Christians, as soon as they enjoyed freedom of worship, immediately built places that were the domus Dei et domus ecclesiae, where the faithful could recognise themselves as the community of God.”

For this reason, Sarah continues in his letter, “the house of the Lord presupposes the presence of the family of the children of God.”

Cooperation with civil authorities

“The Christian community has never sought isolation and has never made the Church a city with closed doors,” Sarah’s letter reads. “Formed in the value of community life and in the search of the common good, Christians have always sought insertion into society.”

Even in the midst of the pandemic, writes Cardinal Sarah, “a great sense of responsibility has emerged.”

“In listening to and collaborating with civil authorities and experts,” he notes that bishops “were swift in making difficult and painful decisions, even to the point of suspending the participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist for a long period.”

The urgency of a return to the normal state of Christian life

Keeping that in mind, Cardinal Sarah writes that nonetheless “as soon as circumstances permit… it is necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life, which has the church building as its home and the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, as ‘the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; and at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).”

Sarah’s letter continues: “Aware that God never abandons the humanity He has created, and that even the harshest trials can bear fruits of grace, we have accepted our distance from the Lord’s altar as a time of Eucharistic fasting, useful for us to rediscover its vital importance, beauty and immeasurable preciousness.”

So, “as soon as is possible,” writes Cardinal Sarah, “we must return to the Eucharist… with an increased desire to meet the Lord, to be with Him, to receive Him and to bring Him to our brothers and sisters with the witness of a life full of faith, love and hope.”

The necessity of personal participation at Mass

The cardinal emphasises that “as much as the media perform a valued service to the sick and those who are unable to go to church, and have performed a great service in the broadcast of Holy Mass at a time when there was no possibility of community celebrations, no broadcast is comparable to personal participation or can replace it.”

On the contrary, he says, liturgies in which the faithful participate only virtually “risk distancing us from a personal and intimate encounter with the incarnate God” whose presence among His people was not virtual but real, as Jesus said: ”he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:56).

Cardinal Sarah insists, “this physical contact with the Lord is vital, indispensable, irreplaceable.”

Therefore, he continues, “once the concrete measures that can be taken to reduce the spread of the virus to a minimum have been identified and adopted, it is necessary that all resume their place in the assembly of brothers and sisters” and to “invite and encourage again those brothers and sisters who have been discouraged, frightened, absent or uninvolved for too long.”

Suggestions for a return to the celebration of the Eucharist

In his letter, Cardinal Sarah suggests several “courses of action to promote a rapid and safe return to the celebration of the Eucharist.”

However, “due attention to hygiene and safety regulations cannot lead to the sterilisation of gestures and rites, to the instilling, even unconsciously, of fear and insecurity in the faithful.”

Instead, “it is up to the prudent but firm action of the bishops to ensure that the participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist is not reduced by public authorities to a ‘gathering’, and is not considered comparable or even subordinate to forms of recreational activities.”

Once again citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, Cardinal Sarah makes clear that civil authorities cannot legislate on liturgical norms. On the contrary, “only the competent ecclesiastical authorities” can legislate in this area.

Respect for liturgical norms

During these difficult times, “the participation of the faithful in liturgical celebrations should be facilitated, but without improvised ritual experiments and in full respect of the norms contained in the liturgical books,” Cardinal Sarah stresses.

He also recognises the right of the faithful “to receive the Body of Christ and to worship the Lord present in the Eucharist in the manner provided for, without limitations that go even beyond what is provided for by the norms of hygiene issued by public authorities or bishops.”

A sure principle: obedience to the bishops

On this point, Cardinal Sarah gives a precise indication: “A sure principle in order not to err is obedience. Obedience to the norms of the Church, obedience to the bishops.”

He says, “in times of difficulty (e.g., wars, pandemics), bishops and episcopal conferences can give provisional norms which must be obeyed.”

“Obedience safeguards the treasure entrusted to the Church. These measures given by the bishops and episcopal conferences expire when the situation returns to normal.”

Public health and eternal salvation

The Church, Cardinal Sarah says in conclusion, “will continue to cherish the human person as a whole.”

While our earthly existence is important, he says, eternal life is far more so; and thus, “the Church unites proclamation and accompaniment towards the eternal salvation of souls with the necessary concern for public health.”

More on Novena on the challenges of getting back to in-person Mass post-COVID-19:

Amid “worrying” surge in cases, Dublin archbishop urges parishes not to let guard down with anti-COVID-19 measures

German nuns describe search for sacrament during COVID-19 beyond “dependence” on ordained men

Priest urges Church to learn lessons from COVID-19 “dress rehearsal”: “In a decade Sunday Mass won’t be celebrated in every parish”

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.