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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