Lent of 2020 was scheduled to be one of my busiest Lenten seasons in years. Something “in the air” changed all that, however, the “down-time” has given me the opportunity to consider a number of practices and attitudes that the current crisis has brought to light.
Two liturgical “sacred cows” were curtailed very early on.
The first was the suspension of the “sign of peace.” Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I must declare that I have never been a fan of the sign of peace, finding it a terrible distraction at a most solemn juncture in the Sacred Liturgy. Hence, for decades I have never invited the congregation to “share with one another” the “pax” (that, of course, is completely within the discretion of the priest-celebrant to do – or not). It is interesting that, over the years, I have had some people (usually senior citizens) approach me after Mass in near apoplexy, “What happened to the sign of peace, Father? Did you forget? I really depend on that.” I have wondered at times if some of those same people would be as disturbed if I had omitted the consecration! To be clear: There is indeed a “horizontal” dimension to the Eucharist, however, the sign of peace (as generally done) reduces the liturgy to a social event, with a vapid handshake or goofy waving across pews. Perhaps its absence for weeks on end will give priests the insight that returning it may not be in the best interests of upholding a genuine sense of the sacred.
The second “sacred cow” was the withdrawal of reception of the Precious Blood directly from the chalice. The fact that that was highlighted for suspension is an indicator of what many of us asserted when the practice began, namely, that it is unsanitary. Its promoters claimed that the Center for Disease Control gave it a green light. The CDC did not say that; rather, it informed that the risk of contagion was not massive. If anyone ever looked into a chalice coming back to the altar after Holy Communion and beheld the spittle, he would have more than second thoughts about ever employing that form of Communion. Of course, that is one reason why – for a long time – priests and the so-called “Eucharistic ministers” were pouring the remains of the Sacred Contents down the sacrarium (against liturgical law). The first point to be made is that reception under both species is not necessary for a valid Communion. That said, once more, I want to be clear: I am not opposed to the reception of Holy Communion under both forms; it is a fuller “sign” of the Sacrament. I am only opposed to having the lay faithful receive directly from the chalice. What I have always done – since my very first Mass – was to distribute Holy Communion by intinction, the procedure by which the priest dips the Sacred Host into the Precious Blood and places it directly onto the tongue of the communicant. This is the method used by the other twenty-two rites of the Catholic Church, as well as by all the Eastern Orthodox churches. Intinction is also recommended in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal; priests ought to consider adopting that method once we are all operational again.
In some dioceses, the lay faithful have been told that they are forbidden to receive Holy Communion on the tongue – because of the danger of contagion. This is patently false on two scores. First, no one (including a bishop) can forbid what universal law not only permits but mandates (Communion in the hand is granted only by way of indult, which is a canonical versino of a grudging permission). Second, and just as importantly, medical experts are unanimous in judging that the danger of contagion is far greater by hand to hand communication than by hand to tongue (see the pastoral letter of the Archdiocese of Portland). Truth be told, the crisis is being used by not a few malevolent would-be liturgists to force a practice on the laity that they hope will pass into normal usage once the health crisis is over.
That said, we need to examine the recourse to Holy Communion which has become absolutely normative, that is, the presumption that attendance at Mass automatically calls for reception of the Holy Eucharist. Pope Pius X, in order to address the Jansenist heresy of one’s total unworthiness to receive Holy Communion, promoted more frequent reception of the Holy Sacrament. The Church, however, is generally not too good with the pendulum, so that for the past fifty or sixty years at least, that pendulum has swung in the exact opposite direction. While a Catholic has a grave moral obligation to assist at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, there is no obligation to receive Holy Communion every time. Indeed, the Church sets as a minimum requirement reception at least once during Paschaltide. Yet again, I am not calling for a return to the pre-Pius X era; I am, however, suggesting that there can be too much of a good thing, as the proverb would have it: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
In this most abnormal moment in the life of the Church, it would behoove serious Catholics to “offer up” their inability to have access to full Eucharistic Communion for various intentions: in atonement for one’s personal reception in times past while in a state of grave sin or even just in an unthinking, rote fashion; in solidarity with those brothers and sisters of ours who live in political situations where access to the sacraments is either impossible or dangerous; in fraternal communion with those who cannot (and do not) for various personal situations licitly receive the Sacrament (e.g., the divorced/remarried). The Church has reminded us (and mandated) a Eucharistic fast prior to reception of Holy Communion (roundly ignored). Might it not be worthwhile to use the present unavailability of the Sacrament to experience another kind of Eucharistic fast, that is, fasting from the Eucharist – done in a spirit of reparation for taking for granted so holy a Gift? This would also be a “teachable moment” for priests to instruct their people on the great value of the tradition of making a “spiritual communion.” Surely, this does not bring the graces of full Eucharistic Communion, but it does help one express one’s longing desire for that “Bread which gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33); Our Lord is truly pleased with the expression of such pious sentiments and will not be slow to confer His graces and blessing.
As dioceses have called for the suspension of public Masses (and other services), most bishops have been quick to encourage their priests to continue to celebrate Holy Mass – even though no congregation is present. This is most important, and the fact that some German liturgists have come out swinging against it should confirm the value of the encouragement for a variety of reasons.
First of all, it is a wholesome reminder that the most important thing the Church can do for the world (yes, even and especially) in a time of global crisis is to offer the Sacrifice of the Eternal Son to His Heavenly Father; in a particular way, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered for the needs of Christ’s Bride, the Church. This act underscores the utterly transcendent reason for the existence of the Church.
Secondly, offering Mass without a congregation present restores in a powerful manner the understanding of the cosmic nature of the Holy Sacrifice. In truth, you see, the priest-celebrant is not “alone” in his liturgical action; in the Preface of every Mass, he bids all the angels and saints to attend to the sacred action about to take place on the altar. Thus, the entire Communion of Saints is present: the Church on earth (in the person of the priest), the souls in Purgatory, and the whole Court of Heaven. Each and every celebration of the Eucharist brings together the Church synchronically (the Church at present throughout the world) and diachronically (the Church down the ages). In other words, the liturgical action is always greater than any particular gathering of Christ’s faithful.
Last but not least, the priest’s “private” celebration of the Sacred Mysteries stresses the priest’s primary role in the Church, that is, as the intercessor extraordinaire. In the post-Vatican II era, in all too many ways and places, the priest has been reduced (and all too often has reduced himself) to a mere functionary or “sacramental magician.” The fact that the priest can offer the most sublime act of worship to the Triune God without a visible assembly should bolster his self-understanding. Five thousand lay people (even the holiest in the world) can come together but cannot confect the Eucharist without one of Christ’s ordained ministers. This should never lead to a clericalistic attitude of superiority; on the contrary, it should create in a priest a profound sense of humility: “I, a mere man, can do what no one else can do – thanks to the grace and power given me by Christ ‘s Holy Spirit on the day of my priestly ordination.”
The last point I want to make was reinforced by the liturgical texts given us on this day on which I pen these thoughts, namely, Friday of the Third Week in Lent. The Entrance Antiphon had us acclaim: “You alone are God.” The Collect had us beseech the Almighty that we would “be constantly drawn away from unruly desires and obey by your own gift the heavenly teaching you give us.” Hosea, speaking for the Lord, uttered the challenge: “Israel, come back to the Lord your God; your iniquity was the cause of your downfall.”
Where am I going with this? This damnable health crisis should stand as a most salutary reminder that God is God, and we are not. God is still in charge. As the Sacred Scriptures remind us, “God is not mocked” (Gal 6:7). Just as this is a global disaster, so too has there been a nearly global turning from God and the things of God. The God of the First Covenant did not hesitate to show His might when His People strayed from the straight and narrow path. In the New Dispensation, all too many self-proclaimed believers have not only strayed but have actually deemed their straying of no account: “My God would never punish anyone.” However, the God revealed by Jesus, although almost unbelievably patient, nonetheless is not incapable of calling people to account for their misdeeds, causing Jesus to propose a rhetorical question: “Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?” (Lk 13:4). I have not heard many (or any) clergy – Catholic, Protestant or Jewish – suggest that this plague could be a divine wake-up call. Such a possibility should not be dismissed out of hand.
The “Ubermensch” of the modern era needs to engage in a sober assessment of our humanity, fragility and mortality. Despite all the advances of science and medicine (for which we should be most assuredly grateful), we must humbly admit that this most unexpected, unanticipated occurrence should bring us to our knees. Firstly, to acknowledge God’s dominion over His creation; secondly, to beseech our good and provident God to inspire doctors and scientists to come up with life-saving remedies (under His divine guidance) and equally to inspire everyone to learn some valuable lessons – both human and ecclesial.
In humility, then, we can make our own the wise words of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman:
. . . [God] has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.
Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.