Public health precautions in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic have meant that Catholics around the globe are unable to be physically present at our Holy Week and Easter liturgies. Our dismay is completely justified. A confluence of factors has made this a truly unprecedented situation. Even without being personally affected by the disease, many people have willingly complied with the “stay-at-home” orders intended to slow its spread. This is necessary as a matter of public health, but that doesn’t mean that these restrictions haven’t made life difficult for many of us. The threat still seems distant for many Catholics who have not been personally affected by the virus, even while our longing for God’s presence in the sacraments grows. During this time, we must remember that as Christians–and through the common priesthood of the faithful–we have a closeness to God that we have perhaps taken for granted.
God became incarnate not because he “had to,” but because doing so was how he chose to save us and reconcile us to himself. His kenosis, his descent into the depths of humanity, made it possible for us not only to be saved but also to have confidence in his love. That the Father raised his Son, fully God and fully man, from the dead means that we too can be raised; that Jesus Christ can sit at the right hand of the Father means that we too can rest with God for eternity. God does not deny us his grace!
The events of Good Friday demonstrate to us that God’s love is boundless. In the Old Testament, God established a priesthood for the people of Israel. These priests were responsible for mediating the Israelites’ relationship with God; it was the priests who performed the sacrifices to God with the offerings the Israelites brought to them. But, symbolized by the tearing of the veil, the old order of priesthood was set aside. The high priest no longer enters the holiest of places through a veil in a temple. Rather, by participating in Christ’s death and Resurrection, all the baptized share in Christ’s priesthood and enter into communion with God through Christ’s “flesh” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
That old mechanism of mediation, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the world, was torn in two at the moment Jesus took his last breath (Mt 27:51). In this new order of grace, it is not we who enter the temple, but Christ who bursts into the locked rooms of our hearts. In our common priesthood, we have no need of a mediator besides Jesus, who is at the same time our high priest and the perfect, everlasting sacrifice (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 10:10-14).
By our common priesthood, we are united with Christ in his ministry to the Church, which faces unprecedented challenges during this pandemic. As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council said in Lumen Gentium,
The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, reminded us of our common priesthood in a recent interview. He said,
This is one of the consequences of the epidemic that, in a certain sense, upsets me. I have read and heard dramatic and moving stories. When, unfortunately, a priest cannot be present at the bedside of a person who is dying, every baptized person can pray and bring comfort by virtue of the common priesthood received with the Sacrament of Baptism. It is beautiful and evangelical to think that at this difficult time, in some way, even the hands of doctors, nurses, health care providers, who every day comfort, heal or accompany the sick in their last moments, become the hands and words of all of us, of the Church, of the family that blesses, says good-bye, forgives and comforts. It is God’s caress that heals and gives life, even eternal life.
The sacraments and the ministerial priesthood do not control or mediate Christ for us, as if to say that God is only present in them or through them. Our ministerial priests are not the “delegates of the community” to God (cf. CCC 1553). To say this would be to harken back to the days of the ancient Israelites and to deny our common priesthood! While the sacraments are necessary for our salvation and are vital to the practice of our common priesthood, they are not the only means by which Christ has demonstrated his love for us and gives us his grace. Or, as the Catechism says, “God is not bound by the sacraments” (CCC 1257). As my fellow WPI contributor Paul Fahey wrote last week, “We don’t have to be afraid that our circumstances and limitations will prevent us from receiving his grace because he knows our situation better than we do.”
We are called to pray like the priests that we are, pleading with God for a quick end to this pandemic and listening closely to how God is asking us to live out his commandment to love our neighbor in the midst of all this suffering. In a May 2018 Wednesday audience, Pope Francis described some general ways that we exercise our priesthood. He says,
What does it mean to participate in the royal and prophetic priesthood of Christ? It means making of oneself an offering acceptable to God (cf. Rom 12:1), bearing witness to him through a life of faith and charity (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 12), placing it at the service of others, after the example of the Lord Jesus (cf. Mt 20:25-28; Jn 13:13-17).
Our physical absence from the liturgy need not separate us spiritually either, because the “ministerial priesthood” continues to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice on behalf of the entire people of God. As always, we can–and should–join ourselves to this liturgy through prayer. Hopefully it will not be long before we can return to the regular celebration of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. God’s sacramental presence nourishes us, and gives us confidence in his enduring love for us.
Our priesthood is exercised through the reception of the sacraments, but also “in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity” (LG 10). We should not fear that we are distant from God who has emptied himself for our sake (cf. Phil 2:6-11). God’s grace has been poured out generously for the benefit of all of us, his children.