Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The news of late has been dominated by coverage of the novel coronavirus and the various responses to the public health threat by government, schools, churches, and other institutions, especially those where people congregate in larger numbers. In our own Diocese of Bridgeport, Bishop Caggiano has issued some simple guidelines. Our bulletin last weekend contained a summary of those guidelines, and they are available in full on the diocesan website (www.bridgeportdiocese.org). For our purposes today, I would like to focus on three elements of contagion prevention and health preservation that are included in those guidelines.
First, the Bishop reminds us that one exhibiting flu-like symptoms is not obliged to attend Mass. Of course, the Church teaches us that we are obliged to attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (cf. the Code of Canon Law, canon 1247, the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2181). However, the Catechism includes the important caveat that one might be excused from this obligation for serious reason, illness most especially. Very simply, if you are truly sick, you may miss Mass. Whether because your illness has made it impossible for you to go, or because you choose not to go, in time of sickness, know that the Church will not hold you to an unreasonable practice. If illness has caused you to miss Mass, it is not necessary to confess missing Mass as a sin in the sacrament of confession. There are, of course, people who are ill, but whose illness is not contagious. For them, being at Mass can be a great comfort and source of spiritual encouragement. On the other hand, as with the flu or coronavirus, if an illness is easily communicable the sick person has a serious reason to stay away from Mass, and in the interest of protecting the health of others the case could be made that the serious reason rises to the level of moral obligation. There is no reason to put the health of others at risk. If sickness forces you to miss Mass, consider setting aside time that day for prayer or to watch a Mass on television and make an act of spiritual communion. This pious practice, consisting in simply offering to Jesus in your heart your desire to receive the Eucharist though you are unable to do so, is not spoken of enough but is tremendously beneficial. A common prayer recited as a spiritual communion: “My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.”
Second, the Bishop’s guidelines suggest suspending the Sign of Peace. This particular moment of the liturgy, while deeply rooted in the Church’s history and tradition, is not an essential part of the Mass. In fact, it is commonly omitted in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite. For the Ordinary Form, we look to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal #82 for guidance: “There follows the Rite of Peace, by which the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament. As for the actual sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest.” The sign of peace is meant to be a simple, symbolic gesture. The rubrics contained in the Roman Missal are even more direct, saying simply, “Then, if appropriate, the deacon or priest adds ‘Let us offer each other a sign of peace.’” In other words, the Church envisions that there can be circumstances when this particular action is not appropriate. In the Extraordinary Form, the kiss of peace exists only in the celebration of a solemn high Mass. It is a ritual gesture, symbolizing that the Eucharist, having just been consecrated, is the locus of peace and so from the priest who stands at the altar, the peace of the Eucharistic Christ is “passed” to the Deacon, who in turn passes it to the subdeacon, who passes it to any clergy who are present, and then to the servers of the Mass. Incidentally, the servers represent the whole congregation in giving responses, and, in this circumstance, receiving and sharing the peace. Our practice at St. Pius, as you saw last weekend, will be to omit the Sign of Peace. That said, I feel it important to note that the absence of the Sign of Peace does not preclude our showing hospitality and warm welcome to visitors, nor should we interpret the absence of a liturgical symbol to mean that the reality it signifies is in any way unimportant. To be at peace with one another is praiseworthy! Though the liturgical gesture is removed, we ought to have in our hearts the words of Matthew 5:23-24 “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Third, and most importantly, Bishop Caggiano asks us to remember in our prayers all who are sick, especially those who have suffered as a result of the coronavirus. With all the practical measures we can take, it is easy to overlook the necessary spiritual component. In the Mass we see many symbolic actions that have their roots in very practical things. Symbolic, spiritual meanings have been attached to them over time and they are heightened in their importance as a result. So with our approach to preventing the spread of sickness, there are many practical measures we can take, but the spiritual element should not be overlooked. We ask God to look with providential care upon us, to protect us from sickness, and to bring comfort and healing to those who suffer. We praise God for the hard work of those in the medical profession and ask Him to reward their labors. And we renew our trust in God’s saving plan and purpose for all His people throughout the world. Let us unite our crosses and sufferings to the Cross of Christ, asking healing, protection, and comfort on our world and on all the sick.