When we received the news last night that mass was cancelled this weekend my main feeling was one of disorientation. Most of us have missed mass for illness or other serious reason a few times in our lives. But there is a very different feeling weighing whether one is allowed not to or even should not attend mass and the knowledge that one can not. I feel a little adrift in time without the punctuation of Sunday mass in the weekly rhythm. However, within minutes of finding ourselves in this strange new world opportunities, arose an opportunity for growth.
As we explained to the children that there would be no fish fry and public Stations of the Cross Friday, and no mass on Sunday, one child asked us “what was the point” of mass without a congregation. This led to a fruitful discussion of the mass. While we are under obligation to attend the mass for our own benefit, the mass does not need us. We explained Christ’s saving action as priest and victim. We talked about how the mass makes represent Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, by which we are all redeemed. This is why the Eucharist is both source and summit of the Christian life and a well-spring of grace in the world. This conversation did not only educate the children but comforted me, as I pictured the liturgical life of the church continuing on through the private masses of priests all over the country.
The announcement was also a strange reminder of the blessing of apostolic authority in our faith. We have become so focused on the papacy in our era that we often think of our own bishops not at all or merely as bureaucrats. They are our shepherds and just as the Pope is the successor of Peter they are the successors to the other apostles. Bishops across the country and even the world made different prudential decisions from cancelling all public masses to adding extra ones and everything in between. I was reminded of the priest who officiated our wedding as he gravely explained to us that he too would answer before God if he married us without believing we were properly prepared and serious about our vows. Such responsibility lies on all our priests and particularly our bishops in the exercise of their office. We must practice obedience, some of us even to decisions we do not like. They must attempt to make the very best decision for their large and varied flocks and own that decision before God. I took a moment to thank God for apostolic succession and pray for bishops.
Next we discussed what Sunday would look like without the usual routine of getting ready for and attending mass. The Sunday obligation springs from the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day. We discussed how we could still keep His day without attending mass. This reminded me that attending mass is also not the only requirement in keeping this commandment. How often do we attend mass and then spend the rest of the day in drudgery, consumption, and isolation. We work, we shop, we fail to spend quality time with the loved ones under our own roof. While we are unable to go to mass we can focus on making the day restful and joyful throughout as well as prayerfully joining in spiritual communion with the mass celebrated throughout the world.
The discussion of spiritual communion is yet another invitation to look at our everyday lives in a new way that we can hold on to long after a return to normalcy. Spiritual communion, according to St. Thomas, is “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.”* We are encouraged to do this if we are attending mass and unable to receive the Eucharist but also if we cannot attend mass, or really at any time. To return to the teaching of Eucharist as source and summit one could say that our goal should be to live in spiritual communion, always and everywhere uniting our mind, heart, and will, in everything we think, say and do, with Christ’s sacrifice. In this way we take our Sunday communion in church and carry it out into the world and the week. Perhaps as we practice acts of spiritual communion in this time of desperation we can work towards making them a regular part of our lives always. St. Jean Vianney said, “when we feel the love of God growing cold, let us turn towards the tabernacle; no wall can shut us out from the good God.”
Yet it is hard to feel this separation from the life of the Church. One comfort we have is that our church is always open for private devotions. It would be a good time to learn whether the same is true at your parish. We can get so used to participating in the public, formal actions of the church that we forget it is there for us at other times and in other ways. Christ is present in His church in the tabernacle at all times! How generous He is to us! If you are able, what a precious thing it is to visit him now. After the news of statewide cancellations my family visited our darkened church and said stations and spent some time in adoration. I thought of the agony in the garden and was glad to sit with Him a little while.
Perhaps we will not all have such opportunities in the weeks ahead. It is very likely that things will be worse before they are better and as coronavirus enters our immediate communities we will be more isolated than we are now. But this will pass, and in a few months at the most. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are deprived of the public celebration of their faith for years or even a lifetime. Others take their lives in their hands every time they bravely fulfill their Sunday obligations.
We have lived our faith in great freedom and ease for a long time here in the West and will do so again shortly. Let us offer up our suffering at the current loss for those less fortunate in this regard. And perhaps, when in the not distant future we return to our pews and join our parish communities to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass together again we will remember that Sunday mass is not merely an obligation but much more importantly a joyful, astonishing, abundant blessing and privilege.
*Quotations in this essay from ourcatholicprayers.com/spiritual-communion.html