Here in New York City, Catholic laypersons have been returning to Mass. At my parish, every other pew is roped off. We sit obediently on the little blue X’s taped out on the available pews, two-by-two. Larger families can sit on the side of Church. There is no holy water, but there is hand sanitizer dispensed from two highly coveted dispensers that took weeks to arrive. We wear masks and wave politely during the sign of peace. We’re happy to be here, but we’re cautious. Timid. We wonder how long access to the sacraments will last, and what the past fourteen weeks have meant.
Necessary Measures, Spiritual Questions
From the beginning, I fully supported the Church’s decision to suspend the Sunday mass requirement and, indeed, to bar most Catholics from mass. While I believe deeply in the sacrament of the Eucharist, there is no sound theological reason to believe that this deadly disease wouldn’t be spread in a Church. Masses have been suspended at other times in history, notably during the Black Plague, which devastated Europe in the 1300’s. When one considers the Church’s moral imperative to protect life at all costs, and the fact that many regular church-goers are elderly, it is clear that the decision to close was both prudent and theologically sound.
However, it was spiritually disastrous for many Catholics. The truth is, most Catholics don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about theology. That’s fine! Our religion is about practice, about union with God through sacraments and community. However, this also means that the vast majority of Catholics experienced the suspension of the Sunday Mass requirement not as something unique but in-line with Church doctrine, but as something confusing. Mass was required one week, forbidden the next and now, for the foreseeable future, appears to be optional. In the meantime, they have been separated from the sacraments, and the Eucharist in particular.
Will Catholics Be Returning to Mass?
In his compelling, if alarming, essay for Patheos Catholics: They Are Not Coming Back to Mass… Unless… Monsignor Eric Barr argued that, for the silent majority of Catholics, separation from the Eucharist has not resulted in great sadness, but complacency and a further drifting from the faith. While I don’t agree with everything Monsignor Barr wrote, he is absolutely correct that the majority of practicing Catholics do not feel a longing for the Eucharist. This is, in great part, because they do not believe in it. The Eucharist is the great leap of faith of being Catholic. It is the impossible thing that we know in our hearts but cannot comprehend with our minds our perceive with our senses. It is the paradox that separates believers from non-believers, that which makes us look ridiculous, and that which we accept. And now, the Church appears to be stepping away from it.
Mixed Messages and Missed Opportunities
Monsignor Barr spends a good deal of time in his essay discussing televised Mass. He writes:
The Television Mass has destroyed the sacramental nature of our faith and of the Eucharist. Already, dogma deprived Catholics had a poor understanding of the nature of the Eucharist, but now, by a simple action of trying to fill in a gap, they have been taught, passively I admit, that TV Mass is as good as attended Mass.
This weekend, a close relative described her first experience returning to Mass. She said that she had been unable to receive Communion because she had failed to watch TV Mass every week during the lockdown and had not yet been to Confession. She is a very devout woman and was just trying to do the right thing. How are we to expect the average Catholic to sort through these confusing messages? Why had no one clarified for her that TV Mass was not equivalent to the Sunday obligation? She missed receiving the Eucharist when she didn’t have to.
On a similar note, Spiritual Communion is a prayer that Catholics are supposed to be able to say when attendance at Mass is impossible. Even as a particularly devout Catholic, I’ve had trouble wrapping my head around this. Have I actually been receiving the sacraments all this time? If so, then is the single most important aspect of my faith – physical communion with God – actually something that can be accomplished with a prayer at home? And if that’s the case, why bother returning to Mass at all?
We Need Our Leaders More Than Ever
A few weeks ago, I was speaking to my therapist (over video of course) about my sadness about being separated from the sacraments. Well meaning, but frankly unable to understand, she advised that I could just pray at home. I informed her that I was praying at home, but that Catholicism is a communal religion, not an individualistic one. I just doesn’t work like that. But then again, maybe it does. I left the conversation feeling worse than I entered it. Maybe, I thought, she is right.
Closing Churches to laypeople was necessary, but it was also damaging. It has raised confusing questions that shake the foundation of our religious practice. We need our leaders to guide us, to explain to us why this happened and what it means. I’d really love some clarity on Spiritual Communion. More importantly, though, what I need is for my Church leaders to shepherd me. Even as I write this article, I am bracing myself for the responses I know I will receive, telling me it’s high time I just left the Church. I can count on those responses more than I can count on guidance. Because we live in a secular world, there aren’t many places that we can go for spiritual enrichment. And, at this time, we are extremely malnourished.