“Give us back the Mass,” many Catholics are saying to their pastors.
“We must abide by the obligatory social isolation imposed by the state authorities,” say others.
So the question becomes: Is it right to deprive the faithful of the Mass? Can ecclesiastical authorities leave Christians without the food that nourishes their spiritual life? Do the measures taken by governments to deal with the pandemic justify the general and automatic suspension of the sacraments?
To answer these and other questions we must consider faith and justice.
Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19). In that “baptizing” of his missionary mandate, Jesus Christ entrusted the sacraments to the Church as a deposit, not as property, for the salvation of men and women.
Therefore, the sacraments are both a duty for the Church hierarchy and a right for the faithful.
Providing the sacraments is the duty of the Church hierarchy because Jesus destined them for human beings. Deacons, priests and bishops cannot close themselves off in their sacristies if they claim to be an outlooking (en salida) Church, as Pope Francis says. They must go forth.
The faithful, in turn, have the right to receive the sacramental goods that Jesus gave them so that they may receive God’s grace, become holy and be saved.
The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament in which Jesus, the Bread of Life (John 6:48), gives himself, revealing God’s infinite love for every human being. It is the spiritual food par excellence, without which our supernatural life dies: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
Even in the times of COVID-19 the saving mission of the Church has not changed. It remains the same. The most charitable actions she can offer are to announce the Gospel and to administer the sacraments. No one can replace her in her task of teaching and sanctification. Nor are livestreams of Masses sufficient because, as Pope Francis has said, a virtual church is not the Church.
During quarantine, the pastoral principle of justice — “positive law follows life” — must be applied. This calls for the adaptation of church structures to guarantee access to the sacraments. Just as the state authorities might seek to ensure that food, medicine and social assistance are given, Church authorities must ensure that spiritual food is provided, taking the necessary sanitary measures. Depriving the faithful of the basics of life is unjust. As the Holy Father teaches, the Church must be a field hospital with its doctors of souls bringing to the people the medicine of reconciliation and the food of the Eucharist.
Pastors must discern and decide with faith, creativity and apostolic zeal which are the most appropriate and efficient ways. Perhaps, as Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of La Plata, Argentina, proposed, Masses could be celebrated by adopting health measures similar to those foreseen for attendance at supermarkets, pharmacies, banks or hospitals.
So that the faithful who wish to attend Mass can do so, the number of celebrations per day could be increased, their duration reduced and the sign of peace omitted. Measures should be taken to prevent crowds and to allow sufficient distance between people, to disinfect pews before and after each Mass, to ask people to put on facial masks, and so on. For confession, traditional confessionals could be used with a grille or grate covered by a thin veil with disinfectant.
In the same way, taking the necessary protective measures (masks, gloves or surgical clothing), priests could take the sacraments to the homes of people who wish to receive them but cannot go to the church because they are at risk or are afraid of infecting their relatives. This is applied likewise to prisons and hospitals.
Taking care of the sick and dying is paramount. Many people are now dying alone, without being able to say goodbye to their loved ones, without expressions of affection, without spiritual assistance, and even without funerals. The priest must be present to console and accompany them in the name of Jesus, because he promised us that he will be with us “every day until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). He must give them God’s love through reconciliation, the anointing of the sick and Communion.
Norms that take away the freedom of the Church are unjust and violate the human rights of freedom of religion and worship. Pastors must “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but also “give to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). They must be faithful stewards of the sacraments and, like Jesus, give their lives for love.
State authorities cannot prevent pastors from fulfilling their duty to bring spiritual food and divine grace to the people. Many are in need of refuge, compassion, love and comfort. There is much uncertainty, anguish and fear. Therefore, during the quarantine, priests should, like Jesus, be bridges of listening, encouragement and relief by bringing God’s love, grace and comfort of the sacraments to those who need them. The Virgin Mary accompanies us.
Father Sebastián Frías is a priest from Argentina with doctorates in philosophy (Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome) and canon law (Pontifical Lateran University, Rome).