I’m sure that most children of the 90’s grew up with the book/movie Matilda. In this Roald Dahl classic, there is a boy, Bruce Bogtrotter, who steals a slice of the headmistress’s chocolate cake. Unfortunately, the headmistress is slightly insane, and when she discovers this, she forces poor Bruce to eat the remainder of the cake in front of the entire school. It is nauseating to watch, and needless to say, Bruce never stole a piece of chocolate cake again.
I think that most of us have hit a similar point with screens these days. What was once novel and an acceptable (occasional) substitute for in-person encounters has now left us collectively nauseated. Fortunately, there are at least some things that can still be accomplished, with relative success, with a video call.
What cannot be successfully transferred to this virtual reality is Mass and the Sacraments. Why is this?
Catholicism and Sacramental Reality
Many of us are longing for social contact and the friends we had at Mass and other gatherings, but mere fellowship with friendly faces is not worth risking infection. Knowing that, why is it that so many Catholics are still aching for the return of public Masses?
The Eucharist and the sacramental nature of the Catholic Church makes a world of difference.
There is no dualism in Catholic theology. The body is good. Physical reality is good. The created world is good. In fact, it is so good that God became incarnate. It is so good, that he continues to use created things to impart on us grace. Water and oil are used to bring about our rebirth in Baptism. Oil and the laying on of hands are used in Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Physical presence and the extending of hands as the words of absolution are spoken aloud are necessary for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Vows must be spoken and witnessed for the Sacrament of Matrimony.
And bread and wine, offered on behalf of the Church, are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ.
There is a reason why none of the sacraments can be accomplished over the phone or via video chat. Every sacrament is an encounter with Christ. Every sacrament uses physical reality — a physical presence, words spoken, matter used — in order to be affected. Our faith is not a merely spiritual one. It is very much rooted in our physical reality.
More than that, though, there is the simple fact of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not a something. The Eucharist is a Someone.
The Eucharist, Video Chats, and Physical Presence
In recent weeks, numerous articles have been written about why we are all finding video chats so exhausting. Human interaction was not intended to be mediated by a computer screen. Human interaction is meant to occur between people who are physically together. Anything less than that – letters, emails, phone calls, texting, and video calls – fails to satisfy that desire. There is something different about being with a person.
There is also something very, very different about being with that Person…that is, the Person of the Son.
The whole point of the Eucharist is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to be with us always, even unto the end of the age. There is a reason why this is referred to as the “Real Presence.” He is really, truly present in the Eucharist. And, just as we are unsatisfied with virtual interactions with the other people in our lives, we are necessarily unsatisfied by mere virtual interactions with Jesus. We long to be in the presence of the Real Presence.
Grief and Livestreamed Masses
Bishops and priests around the world are frantically working to try and figure out how to be present to the laity in this time of pandemic. Livestreamed Masses are a stop gap, a temporary alternative until a safe way can be found to distribute the sacraments in these unprecedented times. I have yet to find a bishop or a priest who is in favor of livestreamed Masses indefinitely. All the clergy that I know are missing the laity as much as the laity are missing them.
I am fortunate enough to live in a diocese that, while dispensing with the Sunday obligation and temporarily suspending public Masses, has insisted on Confession still being made available to the people, as well as encouraging churches to be left open when it is feasible. Priests have done things like drive thru palm pickups for Palm Sunday or drive thru blessings with holy water for Easter Sunday. They have moved Confession to sacristies and parking lots and curtained off windows in order to follow social distancing guidelines. They have extended hours for churches being unlocked, so that people can still pray in the presence of the Eucharist. Priests still offer Anointing of the Sick and still visit the hospital. Weddings are still happening, although only a few people are present. As far as I know, Baptisms have not been forbidden, although social distancing recommendations and public gathering restrictions would have to be respected. Ordinations will still occur this year (although they will be private and livestreamed). Even with this, the people of my diocese are still aching and longing for the return of public Masses. However, we also find solace in knowing that our priests are doing everything they can to be physically present to us in an era of social distancing.
One of my best friends lives in a diocese where the celebration of all sacraments has been temporarily suspended (other than private Masses). The churches are all locked, Confession is not offered, Anointing of the Sick is suspended, and no Baptisms or weddings are occurring. Presumably, ordinations will be delayed, too. My friend and the others in her diocese are bereft and grieving. They are keenly feeling the lack of the sacraments.
There is a reason why we feel such deep grief when we cannot receive the sacraments. There is a reason why we feel heartbroken without Mass, even if we can acknowledge the importance of temporarily suspending public Masses.
It is because Mass is not just about a gathering, or good music, or good preaching – it is about being in the presence of a Person. No virtual interaction can replace that. Physical proximity makes a difference in personal relationships.
If you are grieving, you are not alone. There is no sin in missing someone you love. If you are missing Jesus in the Eucharist, you can take comfort in knowing that that aching for him is a sign of your love. Although this aching for the Eucharist is painful, it is increasing our love for the one our hearts are made for. The famous mystic, St. Teresa of Avila aptly described longing for God as a “delectable pain,” and reassures us that the sweetness of this longing is worth the accompanying ache.
Take comfort, too, in knowing…he is longing for you even more than you are longing for him.