What the first Christians can teach us about missing the sacraments and still growing in faith
There is something profoundly moving about images of Catholics from around the world finding creative ways to practice their faith during the coronavirus pandemic. It calls to mind the early days of Christianity, before the institutionalization of the church, when organized worship often took place in the home.
Here in the United States, many images that followed the suspension of Masses—whether of cars lined up for drive-up confessions or priests parading a monstrance through city streets—illuminate a beautiful piety and sincere hunger for the sacraments.
But that hunger can sometimes reveal an unhealthy and uniquely American form of self-centered exceptionalism.
U.S. Catholics seem not to notice that sisters and brothers around the world are deprived of regular access to the sacraments.
Focused on the shocking recent changes to our own practice of faith, many U.S. Catholics seem not to notice that sisters and brothers around the world are deprived of regular access to the sacraments. They include refugees of famine and war, migrants in detention centers and geographically isolated communities like the indigenous inhabitants of Amazonia. If we do think about it, we tell ourselves that it is sad these people cannot attend Mass or go to confession. But it is out of our control. Perhaps more pointedly, it does not affect us directly.
Catholics around the world go months, even years, without access to the Eucharist and other sacraments. But in the United States, we could not go a full month after the suspension of public Masses before some Catholics started pressuring bishops for the reinstatement of communal liturgies. This self-centered concern for “normal” worship evinces a sense of privilege and entitlement with respect to the sacraments, rather than drawing us deeper into dependence and reliance on God. It ignores the experience of the church in Peru or Papua New Guinea, where people might only be able to receive Communion once every few months.
There is something awe-inspiring about parking lots full of pickup trucks and a presider reciting the eucharistic prayer over a bullhorn. There is also something prideful about it.
Worse still is the report of a “private” Easter Mass with more than 10 people held in Boone, N.C., in defiance of the orders of a local bishop. No matter how noble the desire to receive the Eucharist, risking the transmission of a deadly disease prioritizes personal spiritual needs over solidarity with the body of Christ who stands to suffer. During the pandemic, communion demands a type of self-abnegation so that the other parts might heal.
In many ways, Catholics are confused. They have been told from birth that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the faith. In elementary school classrooms and religious education sessions, they have been warned that it is a mortal sin to miss Mass, that “fulfilling the Sunday obligation” is a primary way of living the faith. To hear, suddenly, their local bishops telling them that it is not necessary to attend Mass in church or to receive the Eucharist is disorienting.
To hear, suddenly, bishops saying that it is not necessary to attend Mass in church or to receive the Eucharist is disorienting.
For priests, too, this is a frustrating and agonizing time. Wracked by powerlessness in the face of this pandemic, consumed by anxiety over imminent financial challenges and beset by the uncertainty of when they will be able to open their doors—priests are suffering. Following years of formation to prepare them to dispense the sacraments, they have been told that they may not exercise their priestly ministry in this way. Many priests selflessly and zealously desire to sacrifice their own wellness if it means making the sacraments available to all who are suffering. They are willing to follow in the footsteps of saints like Aloysius Gonzaga, Teresa of Calcutta, Damien Molokai and Maximilian Kolbe, who offered their lives in radical service to the faithful. And so to be told by their local bishop that they may not take Communion to nursing homes is, truthfully, brutal.
As Catholics, our insistence on the importance of incarnational anthropology and sacramental theology that is realized through communal liturgies and physical symbols is a source of our shared strength and ecclesial unity. But it can also inhibit us from asking: How do we live our faith when we cannot be physically present for Mass and receive the Eucharist?
When we cannot express our faith through our most central shared act of worship, we can and should look to our own salvation history for guidance. We might think of ourselves as entering into solidarity with the Jewish people during the Babylonian captivity. Exiled from their homeland, their temple destroyed and sacrifice at the altar no longer possible, the Jewish community drew spiritual nourishment and practical guidance from the word. Our own Liturgy of the Word, in which we listen to the Scriptures and reflect upon what these passages might mean for our contemporary circumstances, is a direct fruit of the Jewish people’s resilience during a time of crisis and unfailing reliance on God’s ability to continue to sanctify the community, even without access to the temple.
We draw inspiration, too, from the early Christian communities who gathered in homes to break open the Word of God, offer up petitions and share the eucharistic meal. Before there was a formalized caste of ordained clergy, St. Justin Martyr tells us, there was the eucharistic gathering—the primary and primordial iteration of the domestic church.
We draw inspiration from the early Christian communities who gathered in homes to break open the Word of God, offer up petitions and share the eucharistic meal.
As we have already seen during this time of social isolation, families are beginning to revisit their baptismal vocation to cultivate the faith through the domestic church. Parents are sitting down with children to watch online Masses and discussing why we place crosses on our lips before listening to the Gospel. Small faith-sharing groups are using video conferencing technology to gather, as did the first Christians, to unpack the words of Scripture, articulate their supplications and share a spiritual communion.
Live-streamed Masses and virtual faith sharing groups are no substitute for our communal celebration of the Mass. Once we are able to reopen our churches, there ought to be an Easter moment, with everyone gathered in our pews, proclaiming that death has not won. But it would represent a paucity of both our spiritual imagination and our understanding of God’s infinite ability to reach us if we allowed ourselves, in the interim, to remain convinced that physical presence—even in the peculiarly American forms of drive-up confessions or Masses at movie drive-ins—is required to channel sacramental grace. One wonders what quarantined Italians and South Koreans think about the reinstatement of liturgies in New Mexico, even if such gatherings are limited in size and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
So parishes might take this moment to form families in how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. The Divine Office grew out of the monastic experience of being isolated in a confined space and beginning to orient one’s entire day around prayer, work and community. As people shelter in place, many are looking for structure to arrange their day. What better way than for priests and staff to hold daily virtual morning prayer, midday prayer and evening prayer for whoever would like to participate? Moreover, parishes could hold formation sessions, teaching parents how to navigate the Breviary and pray the Divine Office with their children.
Upon returning from exile, the Jewish people restored the glory of the temple and resumed public worship, but they continued to integrate communal reflections on the Scripture as a central component of their spiritual practices. Likewise, even though followers of Jesus ceased to be a persecuted group forced to meet secretly in homes and were able to build soaring cathedrals, Christians continued to understand the value of forming small groups. Even in a moment of pandemic, our Lord invites us to discern how we are being renewed and reformed to be ever more the community of disciples that Jesus envisioned.