It's a challenge for faithful to go from a habit of thinking Sunday Mass is optional for several months to Mass' suddenly being obligatory again almost overnight.
Recently bishops in several dioceses have begun to lift the general dispensations from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass that they had decreed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Numbers of new infections are low in their regions, schools, places of employment, restaurants, stores, and places of entertainment have reopened, and people have resumed most of the activities of normal life. Combined with church protocols for safety, which have proven highly effective in preventing the transmission of COVID, there is no reason to continue a general dispensation. For those who are ill, caring for those who are ill, or those with health conditions that would make contracting the coronavirus especially perilous, the bishops have generally maintained particular dispensations.
These decrees lifting the general dispensation and reminding the faithful of the grave duty to attend Sunday Mass make sense and it's always good when bishops are clear about the precepts of the Church.
I'm concerned, however, that a primarily canonical response is not the most prudent way to address the present situation, where, in most places -- according to both surveys and online priest discussion groups -- only a minority of those who were regular Sunday Mass goers in February have returned to regular worship.
The headlines announcing the removal of general dispensations -- which have included "Bishop orders faithful back to the pews" and "Catholics again obliged in conscience to attend Mass" -- lay the emphasis on obedience and duty. Even though the language in the most of the decrees does not make explicit that voluntarily missing Sunday Mass without a legitimate reason is a mortal sin, and that unabsolved mortal sins can lead to earthly and definitive self-alienation from God, some Catholics, nevertheless, know that context and won't be able to resist receiving the decrees as an eschatological threat.
In ordinary times that's not the message we want to be emphasizing about Sunday Mass. In these extraordinary times, it strikes me as even less evangelically apposite.
Many of the faithful have been scandalized by the way Church leaders have treated the sacraments during the early weeks of the pandemic. When civil leaders began to define the worship of God as a non-essential service, less important than access to liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries, many Church leaders acquiesced. Ecclesiastical decisions in various places to suspend access to the sacraments -- even, in some places, quashing the creative and zealous solutions of priests to celebrate parking lot Masses, drive by confessions, and the anointing of the sick in full protective gear -- could not help but suggest that "even the Church" regarded the sacraments as non-essential. It's a challenge for faithful to go from a habit of thinking Sunday Mass is optional for several months to Mass' suddenly being obligatory again almost overnight.
Many people have gotten comfortable in the new normal of the pandemic. In priest online discussion groups, several pastors have described that their parishioners have told them that they haven't voluntarily returned to Mass in their parishes because they have come to prefer watching Mass making spiritual communions with a cup of coffee from their La-Z-Boy, or viewing livestreams from exquisite Cathedrals with great sacred music, or those featuring priests who are superb preachers. While it's good at least to watch Mass, in a culture of convenience, marked by consumerism both material and often spiritual, many Catholics over the last six months have formed new Sunday habits that they're not eager to give up. Others have simply gotten into the habit of living without Sunday Mass altogether, even virtual.
That's why I think it's essential for the Church, in hoping to draw people back to Mass, to focus less on obligation and more on the mind-blowing reality of what Mass is. God loved us so much that he not only humbled himself to take on human form and even further humbled himself to allow us, his creatures, to crucify him; he humbled himself to the extent that he hides himself under the appearances of bread and wine, so that we can spend time in prayer with him substantially present, and so that we can become one with him in Holy Communion. God has made possible for us to enter with him in time into his eternal acts during the Last Supper and on Calvary, so that we might journey with him through the new and eternal Passover from death to life.
I catechize first communicants and others that far more than the Virgin Mary desired to receive the blessed Fruit of her womb again within at the Masses celebrated by the apostle St. John, far more than all the saints combined have collectively hungered for Jesus in Holy Communion, Jesus even more desires to give himself to us. He came so that we might "have life and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10) and emphasized that unless we "eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood," we will have no life in us (Jn 6:53). The Eucharist is the greatest loving means to achieve that saving and life-giving end.
Now is the time to stress not so much our duties toward God but our love for him and appreciation for what he has done. Watching Mass on our screens is good, but nothing in comparison with entering into Jesus' presence. Spiritual communions are important but are nothing in comparison with the fulfillment of those desires in actual Holy Communion. Personal prayer at home is great, but pales to the opportunity we have Mass to enter into Jesus' greatest prayer that redeemed us and brought salvation to the whole world.
On Sept. 12, the Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, published a letter that he sent to the bishops across the world describing that it is "necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life ... and especially the Eucharist."
"As soon as is possible," Cardinal Sarah wrote, "we must return to the Eucharist ... with a renewed amazement, with an increased desire to meet the Lord, to be with him, to receive him and to bring him to our brothers and sisters with the witness of a life full of faith, love, and hope."
He reminded us that Jesus gave himself to us not in a virtual way but in his Body and Blood. "This physical contact with the Lord is vital, indispensable, irreplaceable," he underlined. "It is necessary that all resume their place in the assembly of brothers and sisters, rediscover the irreplaceable preciousness and beauty of the celebration of the liturgy, and invite and encourage again those brothers and sisters have been discouraged, frightened, absent or uninvolved for too long" to return.
He urged us to ponder the witness of the martyrs of Abitene in fourth-century Tunisia, who after being sentenced to death for attending Sunday Mass and asked by their judges why they made such a choice, responded serenely, "Sine Dominico non possumus," "Without that-which-is-the-Lord's we cannot live."
By that-which-is-the-Lord's, Cardinal Sarah said they meant several things: they can't live without the living Word of the Lord; without participating in the sacrifice of the Cross by which we're saved; without the banquet of the Eucharist that sustains us on the pilgrimage of earthly life; without our brothers and sisters in the Christian community that is meant to resemble the communion of persons in the Blessed Trinity; without going to the house of the Lord our sacred, spiritual home; and without the Lord's Day, which resets our soul and frees us from slavery to work and earthly things so that we might live for God and love. They were willing to die out of love for the Sunday Mass in all of these aspects and their witness eloquently speaks still.
The whole theme of Cardinal Sarah's letter is encapsulated by its title, "Let Us Return to God with Joy!" It puts the emphasis on what the Christian response should always be with regard to Sunday Mass: we attend not principally because we have to, but because we want to, out of gratitude to God and out of love.
That's what the whole Church should be stressing at this time.
- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.