Mass in a Time of COVID-19

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of St John Paul II. He was a man of very definite opinions, as others often discovered to their cost. His role in the collapse of several dictatorships is widely recognized although not yet fully documented. Within the Church, too, he could be formidable. This morning I was thinking about one of his Apostolic Letters, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which came out in 1994 and stated that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.’ The problem for many was the way in which this teaching was subsequently expanded to prohibit any discussion of the matter. As far as I know, it is the only subject that may not be discussed by Catholics, which makes it quite difficult to address something the Church is going to have to deal with increasingly in the future, and which our current experience of COVID-19 has highlighted: access to the Mass and other sacraments.

Let me be quite clear. I am not disputing the teaching of the Catholic Church nor am I arguing for the ordination of women to the priesthood. What I am doing is asking whether the present situation is challenging our understanding of the Church and the sacraments. For example, if we forget for the moment those emoting about being unable to go to Mass as though they alone were affected, or those lamenting having to celebrate ‘their’ Mass behind closed doors, we face an uncomfortable truth. The only people to have physical access  to the Mass at present are men — male clergy. Of course, every Mass is offered for the whole Church, living and dead, and we can participate by spiritual communion; but the only people who can actually receive Holy Communion at present are the clergy.

I think that affects how we see the composition of the Church and the role of the sacraments within it. There is a kind of irony in the fact that under Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken against clericalism, the Church should have become extremely ‘clerical’ in her approach to the sacraments. Mass has become, in a certain sense, ‘privatised’. There is a movement, largely led by Protestant theologians, which is arguing for the validity of a digital Eucharist and online Communion. I myself do not see how such a thing could ever be countenanced according to Catholic sacramental theology, but the underlying questions are another matter. The Eucharist was given to the whole Church, not just part of it. How does the Church qua institution make that a reality?

Live-streaming Mass, making a spiritual communion, that is the experience of the greater part of the Church today. What was once confined to the invisible Church — the old, the sick, those in countries where priests are few and far between — has now become universal. Mass in a time of COVID-19 is very different from what most of us have known for most of our lives, and so with the other sacraments. I don’t, for one moment, deny the validity or even the necessity of the current arrangements, but I am glad that we are beginning to ask some very important questions about the Eucharist and other sacraments. The pro multis of the words of Eucharistic consecration are not to be lightly abandoned or understood in a restrictive sense, are they? Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us into a fuller understanding of this treasure entrusted to the Church.

Audio version

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9 thoughts on “Mass in a Time of COVID-19”

  1. God bless you, dear Sister Catherine, for posing the questions. All Christians believe in one deity and an universal church for everyone. Also that the Mass is for everyone. I look no further than Acts for confirmation that we are all disciples of the Lord and therefore capable of giving as well as receiving the host. The concept of Pharisees was anathema to the original church.
    There are many who would condemn me utterly for expressing such views and l am not expecting you to enter into discussion about this.
    May the Lord bless and keep you and your Sisters safe. Peace and love be with you all.

  2. As a Non-Conformist I read your blog with a great deal of sadness for I, and the Church that I attend, have benefited greatly from the WHOLE ministry of women presbyters and women priests in the CofE. It saddens me that Catholic friends are not able to benefit in a similar way. I find it difficult to accept that the ministry of women is, in any way, to be less valued or less important to that of men.
    Peace be with you.

  3. What happened to the discussions on Women deacons?….I thought Pope Francis was trying to encourage this. Has it disappeared?

  4. I was and am a great admirer of Pope John Paul II. He played a huge role in my return to the church. His life and work inspired me. So, I have been sad to realise his shortcomings – that saints aren’t perfect. This began with the grievous mistakes in the sexual scandal that continues to tear apart the church, and many of those mistakes were his. It seems, but I don’t know, that he did not deeply and seriously and prayerfully examine this problem. And on women and the church, I think he may also have fallen short.

  5. I watch the Pope Francis’s mass from Santa Marta each morning now, moved by his face, his gestures, his painful movements as he walks, his breathlessness…

    Apropos ‘pro multis’ (your penultimate sentence above) every morning he says this:
    ‘questo è il calice del mio Sangue
    per la nuova ed eterna alleanza,
    versato per voi e per tutti… ‘
    That strikes me as understanding the Latin better : ‘pro multis’ is an indefinite, open, number, not, as is the English ‘for many’, implicitly exclusive of the non-many.

  6. As a ‘heretical’ Protestant, I am puzzled by the Catholic Churches stance on this. Where, oh where, in the Gospels, indeed the whole New Testament, is it said that Holy Communion has to be presided over by a priest? If, as Jesus promised, that “where two or three of you are gathered together in My Name, there I AM in the midst of them”, then surely, our High Priest is right there! The authority of His Name and His Word and His Presence declares the validity of His Body and Blood to us as we read the Scriptures and declare their Truth in faith. Tradition of man is surely robbing huge numbers of faithful people of spiritual strength, comfort and power. It makes me sad.

  7. A couple of comments: 1) as my theologian husband says,Pope John Paul’s use of the term ‘definite tenendum’ is his own invention and certainly not part of church teaching in the strict sense.
    2) the use of the term ‘pro multis’ should, as Eric has said, really to be translated ‘for all’ in English because for many suggests that some are left out. I am so glad the Italian has per tutti and will whisper that at Mass in future.
    I might add that being part of a streamed Mass each morning has proved a great consolation to me. I particularly like the fact that I can see the number of other people with me and that many of us Like or Love at the sign of peace.

  8. Dear, dear, Sister. What a wonderful expression of the Doubts that so many of us feel but are reluctant to express. Hopefully, one day, when we, again hopefully, have passed through the pearly gates, we shall raise a glass and smile as we say… it has happened… in God’s good time.

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