As we were quickly thrust into a “eucharistic fast” it is important to reflect upon what transpired and why. What did we learn?
The source and summit of the life of the Church is most fully realized when the community gathers around the altar and makes real again the sacrifice of Christ. The priest in the name of Christ repeats the Lord’s words, “This is my body broken for you” and “This is my blood poured out for you.” The community then hears the words of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me.” The “doing this” is a challenge to the members of the community to go forth and be “broken” and “poured out” in service to the world. A eucharistic people are people who give themselves in loving service to the broken Body of Christ: the poor, the hungry, the refugee, the homeless, the ignored, to those whose human dignity is attacked, those Pope Francis calls the people of the periphery. Our sharing at the eucharistic table of the broken and poured out Body and Blood of the resurrected Lord is what we carry into the world. We become that presence, in an image that Pope Francis calls “mobile monstrances.” We are the real presence of Christ in the world when we serve God’s people.
This “gathering” is what we Catholics did on a regular basis until a very contagious and deadly virus made its way through Asia, Europe and the United States. In order to slow the spread of the virus, the US bishops, in response to the recommendations of their governors, closed all churches and cancelled the public celebration of Mass and other rituals at least through Easter and then prolonged until Pentecost. It all happened so fast!
A Church which defined itself in terms of its sacramentality suddenly lost its ability to fully perform its sacramental rites with its people. The catechumens, who were to be initiated into the Church at the Easter Vigil, had to wait for a later date. Many First Communions were postponed as were Confirmations. Planned marriages were also rescheduled. Funerals and wakes, if they were held at all, were done with families only, following social distancing guidelines. Sadly, many Catholics in hospitals, which had become overwhelmed with Covid-19 virus infected patients, died without the consolation of the sacraments as no visitors, including clergy, were permitted into the hospitals and nursing homes. Most striking was that churches were closed and the Catholic community in the United States experienced, for the first time, since the epidemic of 1918, an enforced fast from the Eucharist.
As we reflect on this availability and frequency of Mass and Communion, we need to keep in mind that millions of Catholics throughout the world do not have the possibility of daily or weekly Mass. Our present “eucharistic fast” can allow us to enter into solidarity with them. For some in Latin America, Mass might be offered in their village once a month or less. The Amazon Synod raised the fact that for some places, Eucharist is available once a year, if that. We also know that divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment are by Church law forbidden to fully participate in Eucharist.
With churches closed and social distancing in place, pastors were rightly concerned about how they would continue to relate to their parishioners. How would they stay connected? They did what they did best. Very quickly pastors began to live-stream Masses or video-record themselves celebrating Mass in empty churches which their parishioners could watch and pray along at any time. In none of the above cases was Communion distributed. Rather “spiritual communion” became the norm. This was not the only form of contact between pastors and parishioners, especially as the pandemic persisted. Pastors made phone calls to check on the members of their parishes, especially those living alone or in nursing homes, ill or vulnerable. Others had parish staff members or parishioners also make phone calls. Parishes with greater technological capabilities used on-line skills to set up video-conferencing meetings. But for the most part, parish priests brought the celebration of the Mass into homes by way of live-streaming or recorded videos.
While the proliferation of video-recorded Masses on YouTube seems to demonstrate that many people have found this form of the Mass spiritually enriching, I also know that many individuals, including myself, have become more and more uneasy with these virtual Masses and “spiritual communions.” I did not “watch” the Holy Thursday liturgy because I could not bring myself to virtually celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and not be able to receive the Eucharist.
A Question of Identity
As our confinement and our eucharistic fast continued, a hunger for “real Communion” began to grow in intensity. Virtual is not physically real, but if virtual is all we have for months, including the rites of the holiest week of the year, what will this mean for our spirituality once we can return to our churches for Mass? We are an incarnational Church, a sacramental Church, a communal Church. Our sacraments all have “matter” (oil, water, bread, wine), they involve “touch.” They are meant to be celebrated together, not virtually. The very nature of our existence as Church rests in our belief that God became present among us, was incarnated, in the person of Jesus. It is his Body and his Blood that we take and eat and drink and it is in the context of a believing community present together that helps to create the Eucharist. It feeds us for our mission to be his presence in our world. This pandemic has turned so much of the world, our society and our Church upside down. This fast has become an ever-increasing pain for us all.
This virus has brought into public view that the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council has yet to be fully realized.
Our Holy Father himself expressed his own frustration with celebrating the Eucharist each day in the Casa Santa Marta with only six other people in attendance, all of them assisting in some way with the celebration. In his homily on April 17, reflecting on the familiarity which Jesus and his apostles experienced in their community, he noted that the familiarity of Christians with Jesus is “always of community. A familiarity without community, without Bread, without the people, without the Sacraments is dangerous. It could become — let’s say — a gnostic familiarity, familiarity only for myself, detached from the people of God. The apostles’ familiarity with the Lord was always that of community, it was always at table, sign of community; it was always with the Sacrament, with the Bread.”
I believe Pope Francis expressed what many Catholics feel (and I know many priests feel) in this virtual Church. People “watch” Mass at home on TV, computer, or a laptop. Priests celebrate what are essentially “private” Masses in empty churches. The priest receives the Body and Blood and invites the people who are “watching” to join him in a prayer asking that Jesus would come into their hearts in a spiritual communion. No one knows how long this social distancing will last with its consequent restrictions on gatherings for Eucharist, or if it will resurface again due to a second wave if infections and rates of hospitalizations and deaths increase. How will we continue to address this?
Over fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council officially taught that the Church, the whole Church, all those baptized into Christ, is the People of God. It is baptism that initiates us all into this community. This community is shaped and grows through the proclamation of the Word of God, through prayer, through outreach beyond itself in service and is celebrated and enhanced through the liturgy which is the source and summit of all the activity of the Church. This liturgy is most fully realized when the People of God are gathered around the altar with their minister and together offer to the Father the memorial sacrifice of the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The unity of the community is celebrated and enhanced as together they partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) insists, “that the faithful take part knowingly, actively, and fruitfully” (SC #11) in the liturgy. This ecclesiology is not reflected in the Church’s immediate response to the sheltering in place policy that we were called upon to practice. In fact, it is a counter sign to the theology of the Church as the People of God. It is not the people, it is the priest alone who is celebrating the Mass and he alone consumes the Body and Blood. This virus has brought into public view that the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council has yet to be fully realized. What has been made clear is that we are fundamentally a clerical Church. The priest can celebrate the Eucharist but, without him, the baptized non-ordained members of the People of God, cannot. If the current situation continues or reoccurs in the future the more pronounced this reality will be. Again, it must be noted, this is not a preferred method of celebrating the Eucharist. It was a response to public safety from this deadly and contagious virus.
Celebrating Eucharist and Being Eucharist
In a real way during the virus Eucharist was celebrated as members of the Body of Christ continued to selflessly serve the hurting Body of Christ. We saw doctors, nurses and health care workers being broken and poured out in the service of their very ill patients. Since no visitors were allowed in the hospitals, they were the last compassionate and caring faces many patients saw as they passed away. We saw teachers at every level having to learn new ways of teaching their students who were now remote. Parents, some of whom were also working from home, had the exhausting task of ensuring that their children kept up with their schoolwork. We saw those who risked being exposed to the virus keeping our grocery stores stocked and open. Other brave men and women insured that our garbage was collected. Always on the front lines, those who serve as police officers, fire safety officers, and emergency medical technicians met our emergency needs as they faced exposure to the virus. We need to add here those hard-working volunteers who help distribute food from the large and small food pantries throughout the country which have kept unemployed families fed. There are also parishes and dioceses which have continued their programs to the homeless and the poor. All were being broken and poured out in service of others. All were being Eucharist.
It is time now for substantive reflection on how in a time in which we cannot all be really present to fully celebrate the Eucharist, what form can our worship take which is truly communal, incarnational, and eucharistic?
This pandemic happened so fast and we have had little time for reflection and study. Now we need to take the time to reflect and develop ways in which we can pray together, honor the Eucharist, and live out its fruitfulness as the whole People of God. Moving forward, we must plan a way for these forms of prayer not to highlight the separation of the clergy from the rest of the People of God. Some examples might be praying together the Liturgy of the Hours (Morning and Evening Prayer) with the Blessed Sacrament virtually exposed and live-streamed, or eucharistic holy hours done virtually. Either of these two forms of prayer could include a brief reflection on the readings of the day done by the pastor or other members of the parish community. They could also include Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
In the rapid spread of this horrible pandemic we responded with the closing of churches and the cessation of gatherings for Mass in a way that did not respect the theology expressed by the Second Vatican Council on the Church as the People of God. We unmasked the fact that our development of a real theology of the life and ministry of the non-ordained members of the Church, the laity, has been deficient. As we met this crisis, we responded in a way that kept priests in touch with their parishes and provided the people with a eucharistic liturgy which left the people without the ability to fully participate in the fulness of the celebration. It is time now for substantive reflection on how in a time in which we cannot all be really present to fully celebrate the Eucharist, what form can our worship take which is truly communal, incarnational, and eucharistic? It is now time for parish liturgy committees and parish councils to do some serious reflection and decision-making. They should also include members of their parish outreach committees in their discussions. If we, the broken and poured out, are to continue to be the presence of Jesus in the world, we need to be fed at the table of the Lord. As Pope Francis stated in a recent interview, “I am living this at a time of great uncertainty. It is a time for inventing, for creativity.” It is our time also to be inventive and creative.