Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Now that we have been able to hold public Mass indoors for a little over a month and things seem to be going as well as could be hoped, we do well to reflect on what it means for us as Catholics to attend Mass, to receive the Eucharist, and to do all this while taking the necessary precautions against the coronavirus. To begin, then, a reminder that following the CDC guidelines, especially for those who are most at risk, should remain a guiding principle in our choice of daily activities, including attending Mass in person. With that in mind, we can look at the divine command to keep the Sabbath day holy, the Church’s law regarding the obligation to attend Mass, the very real distinction between watching Mass and attending Mass in person, and the charity toward neighbor we are all called to observe.
The third commandment tells us to keep holy the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). That is, the Sabbath day is to be set aside for prayer, worship, and rest. This is a divine law, given to God’s people to be observed in perpetuity. Divine law is the foundation of ecclesiastical law. Thus, the Church’s law (canon 1247) states that on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, the Catholic faithful are to participate in Mass and to abstain from work or activities that interfere with worshipping God or taking the rest needed by the human mind and body. In other words, the Church teaches that the way to fulfill the divine command includes attendance at Mass and time to rest. With that said, the Church’s law (canon 1248) goes on to acknowledge that there may be circumstances in which participation at Mass is impossible for a grave reason. What would constitute a grave reason? Some examples include the absence of a priest, inclement weather preventing travel to church, illness, or caring for a sick person. In such a situation, the faithful are encouraged to participate in a liturgy of the word and a time of prayer, either with others or individually in the home. In other words, even when attending Sunday Mass is not possible, the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy remains. With the current pandemic, our Bishop has dispensed the faithful from the ecclesiastical law’s obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. In this case, the grave reason is to help protect the health of all the faithful, most especially those who are ill, at greater risk of illness, or who care for the sick. Again, though, the obligation to observe the Sabbath day’s rest and sanctification, because it is divine law, remains.
One way to keep the Sabbath holy by prayer and reflection on the Word of God, especially if unable to attend Mass, is to watch a Mass on television or online. The difference between watching on a screen and attending in person is quite obvious. For those unable to attend in person, the hope is that a televised or live-streamed Mass is both an occasion of prayer and a reminder of their inclusion in the community of faith. It should also awaken in us a hunger for the Eucharist, a longing to be close to Jesus who comes to us, not only in word, but incarnate, truly present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Viewing Mass remotely is good, though it does not substitute for being there. We are blessed to be able to have Mass in person once again. While Mass is once again available, it is important to remember that the Bishop’s dispensation from the canonical obligation to attend Mass on Sundays remains in effect, as does the divine command to keep the Sabbath holy and restful. I would like to encourage attendance at Mass in the most prudent way possible, as often as possible, with the understanding that my encouragement is in no way a contradiction of the Bishop’s dispensation. Remember that there are serious reasons for some people to stay home, and if those reasons apply to you, I urge you to act with the greatest prudence and to find time in your day for personal prayer and reflection with the knowledge that those gathered in the church are praying for you and, from a distance, with you! But let’s not fall into the trap of substituting the remote for the real.
Catholic blogger Jenny Uebbing at mamaneedscoffee.com said it better than I can in a blogpost entitled “An Incarnate Jesus Necessitates Incarnate Worship”:
“Again, if you are frail or elderly or have any other reason to be exceedingly cautious in striving to avoid this virus, this is not an adjournment to go out and put your life on the line, so to speak. But if one has resumed in person shopping in stores, visiting doctor’s offices for in person appointments, getting haircuts and buying bookshelves and potted plants and catching up over drinks or coffee…and if all these things can be done safely and prudently, then shouldn’t we be beating down the doors of our local parishes and begging our priests for the Blessed Sacrament?
Because that is one thing we can’t replicate, remotely.
Or one Person, rather. Jesus comes to us through His word and He is present to us in our vocations, and of course He is omnipotent because, hello, God. But there is only one place we can receive Him physically. Touch Him. Consume Him. Be transformed and renewed by Him.
And it can’t happen over Skype.
Our culture desperately needs to know this. The world needs to know it. Jesus doesn’t make telehealth visits. He spits in the mud and touches ears and pulls hands into bloodied wounds and He rests on our tongues and in our bellies. And worship of Him is not predominately a private, personal affair best kept behind closed doors and safely tucked away in private residences.
The ultimate form of public worship – participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – is really one of the most fundamentally corporate things we can do as human beings. It’s the most massively public experience imaginable. Because not only are we united in fellowship with our surrounding congregation, during Holy Mass, we are united with the entire communion of saints, with heaven itself.
And it is essential. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.”