Mass, Covid-19 and testing the Faith

NOT ANOTHER pestilence post on the information superhighway?! Yes, but it will be brief and have a different point. Notice please, to begin with, that the title says “the faith” not merely “faith.” The distinction is important for the point to be made.

Every plague, pestilence, disease, affliction, cross et cetera, is a test of faith. Contrary to progressive theories, the biblical data is clear that God tests the faith in him of humans as a family and as individuals. It is also clear, by the way, that he does lead us into temptation, also as a test of faith. But that is another story. The challenge of every cross is to trust in God that he wills our good, the good that perhaps we cannot see for ourselves, but is no less real for that. To endure a cross willingly is an act of faith in God as all-loving and all-wise.

But a cross can also test the content of our faith. We all believe in God, I presume of you readers. (If you do not, feel free to join the rest of us.) But what exactly do we believe about God; and about his Church and her life?

There are many examples at present of churches being closed and Mass suspended, though recent papal remarks may slow that trend. Where Mass remains mostly now Communion will be by the Host only and the option for the handshake of peace converted to a nod or a bow, or even omitted altogether. People’s reactions to these will tell us much about the content of their faith.

If some say Mass must be suspended in repose to this pestilence, what do they really believe the Mass is? Is it for them just a communal celebration of togetherness under a divine umbrella? Or is it more fundamentally the sacrament of our redemption by Christ on the Cross? Mass is geared to a congregation but it does not need a congregation to have its spiritual, supernatural value and effect. Whether a congregation is there or not, the offering of Mass is redemptive for the world and pleasing to God. Just as the priest represents God to the people, he represents the people to God.

Mass does not always need us; but we always need the Mass.

Suspending Mass will achieve little good and much ill. The prudent, Catholic thing to do is dispense with the obligation to Sunday Mass and so allow people to employ their common sense and devotion, or lack thereof.

Likewise, some lament, occasionally with some emotion, the withholding of the chalice? So what do they believe about the reception of Communion? Do they have faith in the one Christ who is received entire and whole be it by Body or by Blood alone, or both? Or do they have more faith in the ciborium and the chalice themselves, seen as a set never now to be divided at Communion? In other words, is faith more in the form than in the substance of the sacrament? Catechesis is some places has been so woeful in recent decades that some poor souls actually believe, at least implicitly or unconsciously, that receiving from both the ciborium and the chalice is necessary for the true experience of the sacrament, an experience more natural, in reality, than supernatural.

Underlying all this is a hermeneutic of rights over and against that of duty and worthiness. Modern people hate to feel their rights are infringed, even if those rights do not really exist as they believe them to. We are less punctilious about our duties.

This plague may be a good opportunity to learn, or re-learn, that Mass works even if only the priest communicates; that our Sunday obligation anyway is to Mass not Communion; that Communion is a privilege not a right, and the only people who have any claim to some right to it are those without un-repented serious sin; that Christ is given whole and entire under either the Body or the Blood, there being no divisible “bits” of Christ we might miss out on.

The challenge of every disaster is to make it an opportunity, not least an opportunity for growth in faith and in the knowledge of the faith.

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  1. My first disagreement with you ever! I’m not sure whether suspension of public Mass is the prudent thing or not, but if it is, then it seems to me that it cannot be left up to individuals to decide whether to go to Mass or not without defeating the purpose of the suspension, which is not to allay fears about attending the Mass and catching the virus there, but, rather to stop the Mass being an occasion by which the virus is spread both among the faithful and with all those others with whom they have contact. In Rome the sense was that the Church was playing its part in the civil effort to stop the spread by completing closing non-familial interaction. What do you think?

    1. A first time for everything!

      My fundamental and essential point is that Mass must never stop. Ever. It may well be that Mass has to be offered behind locked doors, though this will be a first in lands in which Catholicism is free.

      Underlying my advocacy of merely suspending the Sunday obligation is that the lukewarm will not go, and the relatively few fervent ones can sit apart from each other and pray the Mass, even if there is no distribution of Communion—just like the old, old days. That will provide a consolation all its own without physically endangering people unduly.

      The idea that the Church totally shuts up shop to the faithful in a time of crisis is not only mind-boggling but really rather offensive. It will do no harm to society if religious types are finding comfort in a church. It will do wonders for the Church if the fervent are praying their knees off at probably far more reverent Masses than many will have seen for a long time!


      1. I have to agree with brtoby on this. By suspending Mass after consultation with the government and their scientific advisors you remove the scruples (yes, some folk still do suffer from these) especially of older Catholics who are the ones who really do need to be “cocooned” as the saying goes. Priests can say Mass for their parishoners and live stream the mass over this difficult time. To effectively combat this virus we really do need a united front. Too many priests on social media are putting their own opinions forward, often at odds with Bishops’ Councils and advice from government. In this day of so many options to keep connected digitally, it seems that following Pope Francis’ example of live streaming his Mass, we could find a new way to keep connected, perhaps even re-connect with the faithful and hopefully bring new life into the Church.

        1. I’m afraid you will never convince me that shutting churches is the right thing to do. Any legitimate concerns individuals may have are easily covered by removing the Sunday obligation and trusting to the freedom of personal choice. To close churches, unless this is forcibly enacted by the state (in which case, shame on it), is an abnegation of the Church’s sacred duty. Bodies die, souls are eternal, and the Church’s ultimate and inescapable responsibility is for our souls.

  2. I’m with Fr Hugh. It’s a shocking thought to shut people out from Mass; but then it’s compassionate towards Catholics’ frailties (physical and spiritual) to suspend the Sunday obligation. I’d like to make another point: Catholics ought not to act identically to their unbelieving neighbour. Our first concern is not our own safety and survival, but the good of others. At times of plague, the saints head straight for the needy without fear for themselves. And above all, they offer the Mass for the living and the dead. Have you heard of the Polish Bishop who is encouraging more Masses, not fewer – so at each one, people will be less squashed close to each other! That’s my man!

    1. Indeed, the Poles have not lost a true religious spirit. My dear is that what underlies the willingness to suspend public divine worship is, at best, an implicit reduction of worship to just another, target irrelevant, sector of the service industry; at worst, an opportunity to further marginalise religion in the public square.

  3. As an afficionado of the Angelic Doctor, might I suggest a distinction? The Sunday observation has never applied in the case of personal illness, so talk of suspending it could be misleading. The Australian bishops have got the tone right: no cancellations but be mindful of your own health and the risk of infecting others before attending Mass. That is the classical virtue of prudence, and refusing to heed this advice is unjustified scrupulousity.

    Where dispensation might come in is concern about the risk contracting the virus if you don’t already have it. Again, this could and probably should be left to prudentialal judgement. But can we be confident, given the shortfalls on catechesis in recent decades, that many people would know what that means. There is a happy mean between scrupulousity and laxity which is all too rare.

  4. I agree also that part of taking reasonable care if you do attend Mass may be Spiritual Communion. But, as the late Herbert McCabe would say, can we find a better term? It is not as if receiving the Host is unspiritual!

    1. (1) Do you have a suggestion for replacing “Spiritual Communion”? Clearly it is being used in contrast to receiving Communion physically or sacramentally.

      (2) The Australian bishops have effectively dispensed the Sunday obligation, which is precisely what I am advocating.



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