First in a series of four articles
A reflection on the place of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the lives of the faithful as we move forward during this time of pandemic.
As we continue to struggle through the ongoing effects of the pandemic, it is important to reflect upon what has transpired, what we have learned, and how we can begin to put our lives back together again. In addition to losing a horrific number of people to the virus, one of the most painful realities we faced was that many died alone and without the comfort and consolation of the sacraments of the Church. Our parish priests and hospital chaplains were not allowed access to the bedsides of the dying. Families were denied the customary closure that our funeral rites provide. Access to our churches for prayer and daily nourishment from the Word and the Eucharist was shuttered for the health and wellbeing of the entire populace. We cringed at hearing the term “non-essential” used in reference to worship services, regardless of the denomination. Did we ever think that anything of this magnitude would happen in our lifetime? Yet here we are, and it all begs the question: What have we learned? Let us attempt to answer this important question in light of our Catholic faith.
Because this pandemic affected people throughout the world, the Church responded to the spiritual needs of the sick and dying with great compassion. The apostolic pardon, which is given as part of the ritual for the anointing of the sick, especially for those who are dying, was extended in an extraordinary way to all who were suffering from the virus. If a loved one passed from the virus without being seen by a priest, please be comforted in knowing that, as long as they offered prayers and had the desire to die in God’s good grace at some point during their lives, they died with the grace of the sacraments and the apostolic pardon. We thank God for this gift of mercy generously extended to the faithful through the ministry entrusted to the Catholic Church. We are so grateful to all the priests and chaplains who were as courageously present as possible to those in our hospitals and nursing homes. Our deep gratitude also goes to all the doctors, nurses, first responders, hospital staff, police, and fire departments; their courage, dedication, and goodness gave us all hope during this especially difficult time. God bless them one and all.
Fulfilling Spiritual Needs
Our parish priests worked so hard to find imaginative ways to reach their parishioners to fulfill their spiritual needs. One of the immediate responses to not being able to gather in public was to livestream our daily and Sunday Masses, and livestreaming devotions and catechesis also became extremely popular. There were outdoor or drive-through confessions and processions with the Blessed Sacrament to bless homes, neighborhoods, hospitals, and nursing homes. These efforts showed great imagination and pastoral sensitivity.
We already had in place televised Masses for the homebound and infirm, many of whom receive great solace in being able to watch Mass on television when being there in person is no longer possible. We had been faithfully visiting them on First Fridays or even on Sundays with the Holy Eucharist and they were able to receive our Lord regularly. When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves in the same situation. Bishops of dioceses throughout our country temporarily dispensed the faithful from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Families began to gather in front of the television or the computer to watch Mass. Some approached this time as if they were in their parish churches, dressed in their Sunday best, sitting, standing, and kneeling, all at the appropriate times. We all learned the beloved prayer for a Spiritual Communion by heart. Others, we have learned, lounged on their sofas in their pajamas, sipping their morning coffee and watching Mass as if they were watching any of their favorite programs.
Cardinal Dolan had hoped that our parishes would experience a renewal after the pandemic, but we have not seen the anticipated number of people return now that our churches have reopened. The Catholic faithful are reminded that watching Mass on television or on the computer did not, does not, fulfill our obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. We are grateful for the opportunity it provided and continues to provide in helping us to remain reflective and prayerful on the Sabbath, but it does not take the place of actually being present for the Holy Mass. During the pandemic, no mortal sin was incurred by the faithful for missing Mass because our bishops temporarily dispensed us. We were not, however, dispensed from keeping the Sabbath holy within our homes and in our hearts because it is a commandment given us by God Himself.
The prayer for Spiritual Communion enabled us to receive the grace we desire to maintain our spiritual lives. If ever we needed that grace it was during this very trying time. That prayer has always existed to assist those who, for whatever reason, are unable to approach the altar to receive Holy Communion. It is a prayer that we should recite if we are at Mass and aware of serious (mortal) sin we have not had the chance to confess. It is a prayer that should be familiar to those who are divorced and remarried outside of the Church as they await the decision of the annulment process and the eventual convalidation of their marriages. It is a prayer that should be offered by those who are in the process of becoming Catholic but are not yet fully initiated into the Church. It is a prayer that our children should be taught as they joyfully anticipate their First Holy Communion. When we are unable to receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, the Spiritual Communion imparts some grace to keep us united to our Lord and to His Church.
The Second Vatican Council called upon all Catholics to have full, active participation in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist (Sacrosanctum Concilium 41). Nothing replaces our physical presence around the altar as we offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a family of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. To be fully present to pray together, to be instructed by the Holy Scriptures, to receive Holy Communion, and to be sent out to be the salt and light of the world is the greatest gift we possess. Made in the image and likeness of God, we are created in such a way that imitates the unity of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We need one another. We are physically and spiritually united to one another. We need to pray with one another. Our Lord Himself said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). To be able to receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is essential for our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Without Him we wither and die. Without Him we lose hope. Without Him our lives are tremendously empty. He is the most essential part of our lives and to be without Him is unimaginable.
An important note to our people who are elderly, sick, or living with health conditions that make them vulnerable and susceptible to catching the virus: Please remain home and do not place yourselves in large groups of people. Continue to watch Mass on television or on the computer, but make sure to contact your local parish church so that your pastor knows who you are and how you are doing. Arrangements can be made so that you could be visited, with proper precautions observed, to have your confession heard, receive the anointing of the sick, and receive Holy Communion. Your spiritual health is as important as your physical health.
‘The Eucharist Makes Us Saints’
Nourished by the Holy Eucharist, frail human beings have the potential to become courageous saints. It is the powerful presence of the Lord Jesus within each of us that enables us to face the world with all its problems and to become part of the solution to those problems. The Eucharist makes us saints. The Eucharist makes us strong, compassionate, generous, kind, forgiving people. The Eucharist is the source of all the virtues we desire to possess in our lives. There is no substitute for this great gift of love. Nothing can replace Jesus and the gift of Himself which He left us as an everlasting memorial. He knew that life would be challenging. That is why He gave us Himself, so that we would not face those challenges alone. The Eucharist is the pledge and promise of heaven. Nothing on earth makes sense unless our eyes are fixed on heaven. When we lose sight of this goal, we become lost and wander aimlessly. The Eucharist keeps us on the path to eternal life.
How fortunate we are in our Catholic faith to believe what we have been taught about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Prayerfully read the Gospel of St. John, chapter 6, verses 22-71. Read the words spoken by Jesus Himself regarding the Holy Eucharist. What we believe, what the Church has faithfully taught and held from the beginning is true because Jesus Himself has told us so. The Eucharist is not a symbol. It is really and truly our Lord. To deny this truth is to deny Him. To be a true and faithful Catholic is to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. We cannot say it more simply than that.
The next article will focus on our response to the gift of the Eucharist.