“Sometimes I think that those who have never been deprived of an opportunity to say or hear Mass do not really appreciate what a treasure the Mass is,” wrote Father Walter Ciszek in He Leadeth Me.
About a year ago, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, a kind of extreme gluten intolerance which, in addition to dietary restrictions, prevents me from receiving the Eucharist in the ordinary way. It took a while before I learned how to make alternative arrangements with priests, so in the interim (and even now during the occasional miscommunication), I was unable to receive — and with my habit of receiving Communion daily, this was incredibly difficult for me, interiorly. During that time, I had to learn how to maintain and continue fostering the intimacy I had with our Lord in the Eucharist when he seemed so powerfully absent. I furthered that line of thought a year later when an abrupt and unexpected change in my schedule disrupted my daily Mass routine.
Ciszek spent five years in Soviet solitary confinement followed by nearly two decades in a labor camp. I did not experience deprivation to the degree that he did, but I understand what he means. While many of us Catholics are grappling with dispensations and suspensions of Masses because of the coronavirus, I hope that what I’ve learned during my own small deprivation will help you maintain peace and grow in your relationship with God amid disruptions in your own Mass attendance. Here are some things to keep in mind when you have limited access to the sacraments.
1. Remember that you do not have a right to the Eucharist. God is generous in giving himself to us, and most of us are accustomed to generous priests who make the Eucharist available to us, and it’s easy to forget that we do not have a right to it. This is especially important for those of us who are doing the main things right, because it’s easy for a holier-than-thou attitude to creep in. Even if you’re not habitually in mortal sin, even if you’re married in the Church, even if you were blessed with good enough catechesis that your marriage isn’t complicated, even if you’ve worked hard and made a lot of sacrifices to get an irregular marriage right with the Church — you’re still a sinner, and the Eucharist is a gift, not a right. No matter how great our desire, even if it’s not a selfish desire, we can’t always have everything we want — including the Eucharist.
2. Your desire for the Eucharist is a good and holy desire, even if it can’t be fulfilled. Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “It is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist.” I once lamented to a priest friend over text: “I miss the Mass a lot!” and he replied, “Good sign! You’ll receive more graces!” It’s hard to be away from someone you love so much, and who loves you even more. When you’re feeling the absence of God’s presence in the sacrament, cultivate a desire to be in his presence forever in heaven. In this valley of tears, even our holy desires cannot be fully satisfied. Let the absence make your heart grow fonder. Cultivate your holy desires and look forward with love to the time when you will be reunited with him in the Eucharist on earth and fully united with him in heaven.
3. Extra lengths are not necessarily extra holy lengths. We admire many saints for their tenacity, for taking on all kinds of extra suffering out of love for God. We may feel that, in order to be numbered among them, we must get to Mass regardless of what happens. But we should remember that in our own lives, tenacity doesn’t necessarily come from holiness; it can also come from pride. Ciszek learned this lesson during his five years in solitary confinement with no access to the sacraments. He writes:
I had been strong-willed as a boy. When I entered [religious life], I saw this character trait as a talent given me by God rather than as a flaw. I took pride in developing it further, through ascetical practices such as fasting, severe penances, exercises of will and personal discipline. Had I failed to see that these were not always done solely in response to God’s grace or out of some apostolic motive, but also out of pride? Yes, I prided myself on doing these things better or more often than others, vying as it were with the legends of saints to prove that I (that telltale word again) could prove their equal and somehow be better than my contemporaries. It is an awful thing, this dross of self that spoils even the best things we do out of the supposedly highest motives.
Ciszek’s cause for canonization is open. Ours are not. Let’s examine our consciences and be honest about the source of our zeal.
4. If you are dispensed or excused from your obligation, you no longer have an obligation. Daily Mass is never an obligation. It’s easy to think that if we truly loved God, we would fight tooth and nail to go every day, but that’s not always true. The same applies to Sunday Mass, even though under normal circumstances Sunday Mass is an obligation. If you’re sick or taking care of sick kids, if your bishop dispenses the diocese or cancels Masses, you do not have an obligation. If you think your bishop was wrong to give a dispensation, the dispensation is still valid and you do not have an obligation. It is good and holy to desire the Eucharist and, in general, to receive frequently. But it is not always in our best interest, even spiritually, to attend Mass when we are not obligated.
5. True fortitude does not unnecessarily put other people at risk. Canon lawyer Ed Peters says that if you’re highly contagious with something nasty, it’s a matter of justice and perhaps even an obligation to stay home from Mass. While many people with weakened immune systems due to old age, severe illness, or pregnancy may be staying home from Mass, their caretakers may not be, and you have a responsibility to be careful with the lives of the most vulnerable. Remember that your priest, too, has a normal (i.e., imperfect) immune system, and he needs to be healthy if he’s going to provide the sacraments at all.
6. God is not bound by the sacraments. His promise to be present in the sacraments in no way includes a promise to be absent elsewhere. Set aside time for daily prayer if you don’t already, and if you can no longer attend Mass like you used to, increase your time of prayer. Pray the Rosary with your family. Offer all your actions, joys, and sufferings in union with the Masses which are still being celebrated, even if you can’t attend. God is present in a particular way in the Eucharist, but he is present everywhere, and you can always unite your heart to his. If you want to be close to Jesus, pray, fast, cultivate virtue, work against your sinful habits, and otherwise make your heart more like his.
7. A spiritual communion is a great substitute. A spiritual communion is a prayer in which we express our desire to be fully united with Jesus, while trusting that he will never abandon us. St. Teresa says, “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.” You can look up a spiritual communion online; there is no one formula. For a more in-depth explanation and some prayers, click here.
8. Many people throughout Church history have become saints without receiving Holy Communion frequently. For much of our history, frequent Communion was not the norm. St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “Since that Communion, my desire to receive grew more and more, and I obtained permission to go to Holy Communion on all the principal feasts.” These words were written by a saint and Doctor of the Church, but not a daily (or even weekly) communicant. If she can grow in holiness without frequent Communion, so can you.
9. Taking normal precautions, especially when recommended by experts, does not imply a lack of trust in God. If it did, we would never lock our doors, get prenatal medical care, or set alarm clocks. God is our all-powerful Father, and he loves us. We can trust that, whatever happens, his love is real, he will never abandon us, and he will provide a way for us to grow in holiness. Miracles happen, but they are by definition an exception to the norm, and we ought to take ordinary precautions whenever possible.
10. Prayer is powerful. It’s superstitious to think that if you say a magic Rosary, you will be automatically immune. But God is real and he does listen. When my own diocese dispensed us from the Sunday obligation, our bishop wrote:
In 1638, a plague ravaged the city of Lyons in France. It has been documented that many people who were infected became well through the intercession of St. Joseph, while others were preserved from the contagion through his powerful intercession. … Let us earnestly petition the Head of the Holy Family to protect both the Church and the State from this new threat posed by the Coronavirus. Patron of the Universal Church, pray for us.
Regardless of whether we personally get sick and regardless of our access to Mass, let’s entrust ourselves to God, knowing that his infinite love for us is not limited to the Eucharist. Let’s foster a desire for the Eucharist while remembering that our Father in heaven will never abandon us.
I’ll leave you with the words of St. Francis de Sales:
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today, will care for you tomorrow and every day. He will either shield you from suffering, or give you unfailing strength to bear it. So be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.
Mary C. Tillotson holds an MA in TESOL from Eastern Michigan University and a BA in English literature from Hillsdale College. She lives in Michigan with her family.