Social distancing and the sacraments: How the coronavirus pandemic has changed our sense of communion

The Lando family of Carlisle, Mass., participate in St. Mary's Catholic Church live streamed Easter Mass April 12, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)

On a recent walk around my neighborhood (while wearing a mask, of course), I passed my local parish. Outside, two women knelt on the front steps, about six feet apart, each wearing a mask and reading from what appeared to be Bibles. My heart ached at the sight of them. I understood their desire to be close to this physical space for worship; and I shared it. I also knew that it is unlikely we will return to that space, at least in any recognizable form, for quite a while.

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, many Catholics have been forced to grapple with their relationship with the church—the buildings, the community and especially with the sacraments, which typically require a physical closeness that is nearly impossible right now. For many the experience of being separated from their usual patterns of prayer and worship has been challenging spiritually, emotionally and logistically. Yet many theologians and others in ministry say that this struggle also presents a real opportunity for catechesis, especially around the sacraments. How faith communities respond to this struggle could have a lasting impact on how the sacraments are taught to children and families, how they are prioritized within one’s spiritual life, and whether or not people show up for them in the future.

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It will take time to understand the true spiritual effects of the pandemic, said John Baldovin, S.J., a professor of liturgy at Boston College. He added that he has heard anecdotally that the pandemic has prompted many people to look to spiritual traditions to help them cope with its effects. “What the crisis has shown us is people’s hunger for faith,” he said, adding that this is not an unusual response to a crisis.

“What the crisis has shown us is people’s hunger for faith.”

For Catholics, that faith requires a community, and what that community looks like these days has changed, most notably in the inability to gather to celebrate the Sacrament of the Eucharist at Sunday Mass. Father Baldovin said that while streaming and televised Masses are a good and necessary thing, they are inherently different from showing up to a parish on Sunday. “The thing about sacraments that I don’t think we’ve adequately catechised is the communal dimension,” he said. “The bodily dimension. It means bodies coming together.” This is a quality not limited just to worship on Sundays. “Even in individual penance, body language tells me a lot, even when somebody is behind a screen.” The tactility of our sacraments is “extremely important,” he said. “It involves the laying on of hands—confirmation, baptism and the Eucharist are by definition embodied.”

In an era in which this touch is also a potential health hazard, Father Baldovin worries that the wariness around physical connection to the sacraments could continue to affect the rituals elements of the sacramental liturgies after the pandemic fades. For example, as people are allowed to gather for worship again, the greeting of peace, even without handshakes, or the opportunity to receive Communion from the cup might disappear, he said.

Father Baldovin said that he hopes online Masses continue, but that, when it is safe to do so, the masses return to Mass. “You don’t want to give the people the impression that [a virtual service] is just as good,” he said. “It’s a substitute right now because of the crisis we are in and that’s fine. But it is a substitute.”

Disconnection from the sacraments also increases the risk that Catholics will forget to call upon the grace they offer, said Lucas Pollice, an associate professor of theology and catechetics and director of curriculum development for the Augustine Institute. He hopes that the distance from the sacraments required by social distancing will help “people to understand...that [sacramental] grace has a real impact” on our lives and relationships. “People I’ve been talking to have said, ‘I miss that grace. I didn’t realize how much I missed that grace,’” he said.

“It’s a substitute right now because of the crisis we are in and that’s fine. But it is a substitute.”

He also hopes that this time will serve as a reminder to Catholics that this grace is not confined to the sacrament of the Eucharist, nor is it a one-time offering. “To those of us who are married, do we call upon the grace of the sacrament of marriage [to help us cope]? Or in the workplace do we call upon the grace of the sacrament of confirmation?” he said. “I hope this [time] will allow us to think about that more.”

Through its website, formed.org, which offers educational videos, reading materials and sacramental preparation, the Augustine Institute hopes to help Catholics gain a deeper understanding of these graces. Prior to the pandemic, Mr. Pollice said some parishes and dioceses were hesitant to fully engage online resources, but since the Covid-19 crisis began, many have reached out to him for the first time. The institute, based in Greenwood Village, Colo., has adapted quickly by converting their sacramental prep resources, originally intended to be used in person at a parish, to online resources, including their programs for R.C.I.A., marriage and first Communion preparation.

Since the virus hit and the stay-at-home orders began for many states, the traffic to formed.org has doubled, according to Mr. Pollice, who said that the number of visitors to the site on Good Friday was so great that the site was briefly overwhelmed and shut down.

Mr. Pollice said he hopes that the impact of the institute’s online resources will reach beyond the parish and help to focus renewed attention on the connection between the sacraments and the domestic church. “One of the things that we’re finding is that parents, because of these tools, can actually do this work of sacramental formation with a child, and it’s a fruitful experience,” he said. More parents participating in faith formation at home will only help the good work that many parishes already do, he said, stressing that the idea is not to set up parallel teaching tracks, but rather to encourage greater collaboration. He and his staff and students are asking: “How do we empower the parents to work with the parish to do this catechetical prep and continue that momentum at home?”

While it has taken some adjusting to get Catholics used to online gatherings, Theresa Rickard, O.P., president and executive director of RENEW International, thinks some people might grow to expect such services to continue after they are no longer necessary for the public health. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the church,” she said.

“One of the things that we’re finding is that parents, because of these tools, can actually do this work of sacramental formation with a child, and it’s a fruitful experience.”

RENEW offers materials for small group faith sharing and sacramental preparation. Typically, these are geared toward in-person meetings, but the organization has adapted many of their offerings for use online during the pandemic and is offering free access to their baptism formation program online through June. (Full disclosure: I am interviewed in one of the videos for this program.) Sister Rickard hopes to get feedback from the participating parishes with the aim of offering practical tips for parishes attempting in-person baptisms while social distancing.

This time of being separated from the sacraments and from our faith communities also presents an opportunity to highlight underappreciated aspects of church tradition, Sister Rickard said. “I think that one thing we could do better is a deepening of the appreciation and power of the word of God, which is in every sacramental experience,” she said.

She knows of several parishes that have embraced small-group faith sharing using Zoom to reflect on the word; and on Good Friday more than 100 people participated in RENEW’s Stations of the Cross on Zoom.

“This is such an unsettling time, but that’s when we’re more open to conversion and transformation to the Gospel and Christ and the power of the Word to draw people in,” she said. Through RENEW she is trying to help pastoral ministers look at this crisis as a faith sharing opportunity. “We need to help people stay connected; they’re lonely and isolated. It’s not only about getting people back to church,” she said. “We need to think not just about how we are going to give out Communion during Mass in light of the virus, but how we are going to minister to people who have recovered from the virus or people whose anxiety is high. It’s not just about reopening and onsite [issues], and it’s bigger than that; and I’m hoping that we can push pastors and staff to think about that.”

Much of how Catholics are experiencing this pandemic, from a spiritual perspective, depends on their lived experience of the church before the crisis, said Bruce Morrill, S.J., a professor of theological studies at Vanderbilt University, who has degrees in both theology and anthropology. Father Morrill says he suspects the current crisis will put the decades-long pattern of decline in regular Sunday Mass attendance and church weddings “in greater relief.”

“This is such an unsettling time, but that’s when we’re more open to conversion and transformation to the Gospel and Christ and the power of the Word to draw people in.”

“I think this [crisis caused by the pandemic] will accelerate some patterns, not because people have sat down within the last eight weeks and said, ‘I’ve decided this.’ It’s more about: What were their basic habit memories and habitual bodily practices going into this? That will set how they are experiencing [the church during the pandemic] now and what may be going forward.”

Father Morrill said the crisis has made clear for many the answer to the question: “What is the primary way you experience what you do during Sunday worship at your Catholic parish?” He said Catholics often speak about their Sunday experience in one of two ways: “They either highlight the experience of getting together as a community, or they talk about the elevation of the host and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the personal experience of receiving it. Those are two things that overlap but don’t integrate [for many faithful].” Father Morrill said that even without the ability to receive the Eucharist, people in the second group tend to find online Masses more satisfying. For those for whom the communal aspect is vital, the loss of the bodily practice of attending Mass in the midst of a community may decrease their desire to participate in the faith community in the long run.

Father Morrill has heard of many acquaintances in Nashville who have been visiting churches for private prayer during the pandemic. He stressed that the church is the people of God, but he also understands why many are drawn to their physical parish. “It’s where they feel devoted,” he said. “They see different forms of beauty in the building: the space, the sound in the space, even when it is silent. People develop these ritual and symbolic patterns not by making lots of arguments and explanations, but rather they’re inscribed on the body.”

But he has also heard many stories of people who are perfectly happy to attend Mass virtually. One of his acquaintances, whose job prevented him from attending daily Mass, said he now enjoys live streamed daily Mass early in the morning. But when Father Morrill asked this person why he liked this new routine, his friend answered, “I don’t know.”

“As a person who is trying to be both pastoral and scientific, I’m paying attention to that,” he said of his friend’s reply. “One of the things I’ve come to understand over 30 years, is the reason so many people—clergy and laity—dislike liturgical theologians and scholars is because we are trying to get people precisely to talk about the ideas, the meaning, the history, the knowledge that is integrated with the liturgical practice, and that goes against everything human ritual is about,” he said. “Ritual is what we do precisely in the ambiguousness in our lives.”

As Catholics continue to live in the uncertainty of the pandemic, Father Morrill hopes that liturgical leaders and scholars will help Catholics to develop tools that will better allow them “to be the assembled community” when it is safe to gather for the sacraments again.

Father Baldovin shares this hope. He said that the “consumerist, commodified society” that permeates the United States has had an impact on how people perceive their relationship with the sacraments. Some people have responded to being cut off from the sacrament of the Eucharist by saying, “I have a right to get this,” Father Baldovin said. His hope is that more people might learn to say, “I have a desire to participate,” which emphasizes the communal aspect of the sacraments. “When I teach sacramental theology, I say that communion is as much horizontal as it is vertical. It is always communion with the church and the body of Christ and with the Lord as an individual,” he said. “There is no communion with the Lord without communion with one another.”

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

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