Across the country, bishops are gradually beginning to allow public Masses again. This process will be slow-going, and the dioceses that are reopening have extended the dispensation of the faithful from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass. How public liturgies look will vary significantly from diocese to diocese, but one thing that will be consistent across the country is that Mass is not going to look the same as it did two months ago. From restricting congregation sizes (some places are only allowing up to ten congregants, and some will allow 15-25% of a church’s capacity), to mandating that congregants wear masks, to the absence of choirs (if not all congregational singing) — things will be different than what we are used to. Even with a multiplicity of diocesan approaches, the universal adjustment that all Catholics must make is to consider the immediate and profoundly practical ways that we will need to concretely love our neighbor as we discern whether to venture out to church.
Someone recently told me that the ache they feel for the Eucharist is like the ache they feel wanting to give their grandparents a hug. Personally, it has been really tough distancing myself from my extended family over the course of this pandemic. Perhaps the most difficult part has been keeping my kids away from their grandparents. It broke my heart when my youngest, Francis, who is almost three, said one morning, “I miss my best friend, Grandpa.” But as hard as staying away is, we are showing their grandparents real love by keeping our distance. We must replace our usual gestures of affection with physical separation. As much as a hug would express our love for them, our social distance expresses an even deeper love. If we were to put our desire for physical closeness ahead of our concern for their health, we would be acting in a way that may appear or feel like love but would ultimately be selfish.
The same applies to going to Mass. A deep desire and love for the Lord is not compatible with putting other people’s lives at risk. A Eucharist received without concretely loving one’s neighbor enough to keep them safe from the Coronavirus would be “intrinsically fragmented” (Deus Caritas Est 14). In his May 2nd letter extending the suspension of public Mass to comply with his state’s stay at home orders, Bishop Libasci of Manchester, NH, summed this up powerfully (emphasis mine):
“The Eucharist is the sacrament of the enduring love of God. Were we to gather together because of how much we ourselves want to share in this sacrament, even though we knew that we might be putting other people at risk, we would be serving as a counter-sign to what the Eucharist is about. The early Christians were willing to die to receive the Bread of Life, but they would not have been willing to send innocent people to their deaths in the process.”
At this moment our individual actions can have a devastating impact on our neighbors. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, the Pontifical Academy for Life published a letter, “Global Pandemic and Universal Brotherhood.” The letter said clearly, “There are no individual acts without social consequences. This applies to each individual, and to each community, society and population center. Reckless or foolish behavior, which seemingly affects only ourselves, becomes a threat to all who are exposed to the risk of contagion.” A deadly virus that is most contagious before someone shows any symptoms makes going to Mass a potentially life-and-death decision.
In light of this interconnectedness between the Eucharist and the vulnerable, between God and neighbor, and recognizing that our personal decisions can have severe consequences for others, we should ask ourselves whether attending public liturgies is the most loving choice right now. I say this, not only as someone close to people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, but also as a lay employee at a parish who is personally involved with reopening our public liturgies. Anecdotally, the population most likely to attend public Masses is also those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Even with detailed social distancing procedures, it will be impossible for parishes to guarantee the safety of everyone (especially if Communion is distributed). Additionally, parish employees and volunteers, many of whom are also vulnerable to COVID-19, will be needed to assist at public liturgies (either helping to enforce social distancing protocols or disinfecting the facilities).
The Catechism reminds us that the Eucharist is an action of thanksgiving to God (CCC 1328). It is not simply a “thing” or an object. It is the celebration that makes present the one sacrifice of Christ. The Catechism teaches that it is the whole Body of Christ (i.e. all who have been baptized), along with Christ the Head, who celebrate the Mass and offer themselves up to the Father (CCC 1140, 1368). This means that all the faithful, by virtue of their baptism, participate in the liturgy, even if they cannot physically congregate in a church. In much the same way that a hug is usually a “more perfect” expression of love than physical distance, being a part of the assembly and receiving Communion consecrated at that liturgy is a “more perfect form of participation in the Mass” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 55). However, that doesn’t mean that we cannot participate when we livestream Mass from our living rooms. The difference is that the signs and symbols of the liturgy help us, as embodied persons, to dispose ourselves to the spiritual reality. But as we know, God’s grace is not bound by the physical sacraments (CCC 1257).
The Catechism teaches that the desire for baptism, “brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” (CCC 1258). In 1983, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote clearly that the same applies to making a Spiritual Communion. He wrote that those who “are intimately animated by a desire for the sacrament and united in prayer with the whole Church, and call upon the Lord and raise their hearts to him, by virtue of the Holy Spirit they live in communion with the whole Church … No matter how distant they may be physically, they are intimately and really united to her and therefore receive the fruits of the sacrament.”
God can give his grace however he wants. He gave us the sacraments as physical signs of his love for us, but he is not bound by those signs (CCC 1257). God is not a rigid legalist who cares more about external rituals than the disposition of our hearts. He’s a loving Father who will respond to any desire we have for his love and mercy, regardless of our circumstances.
In the coming weeks and months, I invite you to discern if the difference between making a Spiritual Communion at home or participating in public Mass is worth the risk to your community. Perhaps the greater act of worshiping God is forgoing public Mass for the sake of your neighbor. Perhaps choosing to love your vulnerable neighbor may be the best way to participate in the sacrificial offering of Christ and prepare ourselves to the grace he is showering upon us. Perhaps, in this moment, the greater act of love for God is to stay home from church.
As public Masses begin to open up in your community, I invite you to reflect on the knowledge that God is your loving Father who always draws close to you. Sincerely ask the Lord what he desires for you. Consider whether the best response to that ache in your heart for Jesus in the Eucharist is a concrete act of love for Jesus by loving your neighbor.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.