At some point down the road after the virus, I’m sure, there will be theological discussions and liturgical guidelines about the administration of sacraments under extraordinary circumstances. [The more significant discussions, hopefully, will focus on medical ethics.] The concept of a televised Mass never gave me much pause, and every Catholic from the age of two knows that if you are healthy you can’t substitute TV Mass for dragging yourself to church. In the 1970’s and 1980’s I was one of several pastors in the rotation to offer our diocese’s TV Mass ‘for shut ins,” as we would say back then. Our time slot on Sunday mornings ran second to the cartoon show “Josey and the Pussycats,” according to Nielson, in the Orlando-Daytona market, a good news/bad news factoid for the chancery archives.
With Catholic bishops and pastors making good use of the new media, I was somewhat surprised to see a post on the website of Spain’s conference of bishops by Antonio Gómez Cantero, bishop of Teruel and Albarracín, posted on March 26. [Thanks to my old seminary friend, John Donaghy, an ordained deacon, for passing this along from Honduras.] As the original post is in Spanish, I am dependent upon a commentary from Novena Europe Church News for the heart of the bishop’s concern.
Bishop Gomez Cantero writes that with the arrival of the coronavirus – which has now infected over 47,000 people in Spain and killed nearly 4,000 [as of March 26] … “some priests have become very nervous.” Those “nervous” priests have filled messaging and social media apps “with prayers, calls to pray, invitations to follow Mass by streaming… [and links] at which to see the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament…”. “Someone else has taken a walk through the streets with the monstrance as if it were [the Feast of] Corpus Christi (and I wonder with what permission, because for many things we are very strict and for others not so much)”, the Teruel bishop continued.
To this point, the bishop seems concerned that worshipping practices might be getting out of hand during the heat of the moment…or, more subtly, that the Spanish Conference of Bishops has been inappropriately nondirective in its leadership role. In the United States, for example, individual bishops appeared to be on their own regarding judgments of worship and public safety, and more recently are following the directives of state governors on matters of group gatherings and open churches.
But, and I apologize for the choppiness, I continued with the bishop’s text. “All this bombardment raises many questions for me. Aren’t we treating believers as if they don’t know how to pray and should depend on the clergy to do so? “Don’t you think that so much Mass on screens keeps people in the passive role of spectators? Believers are adults, although we don’t always treat them that way.” What’s more important, a time of prayer or lectio divina with the Word or looking at a mass on a screen?”
The bishop has taken his concern to a different philosophical plane here: do lay persons own a theological and devotional command of their own souls?
I have two distinct responses to the bishop’s concern. The first is based on Canon Law, notably, that the Church is not structured as a collection of individual persons, but as a community of faith, which over time has evolved into dioceses and parishes with a united identity around the table of the Lord. My pastor, and several his colleagues that I know of, are celebrating Sunday and even weekday Mass over the air waves to maintain a Eucharistic sacramental bond. If a priest is ordained as an alter Christus, another Christ, he is bound to the Great Command of the Gospel, “to be with you all days, even to the end of the world.” There is nothing in the Gospel that suggests Wi-Fi is an inappropriate medium depending upon need and circumstances.
That said, the bishop does raise a serious question. When churches started shutting down for sacramental and faith formation ministry, I said to my wife that “now we are going to see how effective our last two generations of catechetics have really been.” Just as parents are looking for all sorts of aids and tools to homeschool their children currently home from regular school, catechists/parents are floundering for family resources. This is an actual unedited post from a religious education site: “I created an online Google Form First Communion Retreat for families to do at home. I will post the link below and you are welcome to go through it (just type test for everything) but PLEASE DON'T SEND THIS LINK TO YOUR FAMILIES AS IT IS FILLS TO MY RESPONSE SHEET.” I hesitate to use terms like unprofessional or ad hoc, but like public health in our nation, it seems like there is little in the reserve tank for true crises when the parish can only deliver a minimum. Which in turn makes me wonder if even weekly Mass attending families have any religious routine and self-generated wisdom. Are parents incapable of talking with their own children eyeball to eyeball about the history and meaning of the Eucharist?
This, I believe, is what the bishop is driving at, the question of whether adult Catholics are routinely thinking the deep thoughts of faith on their own or depending upon clerics to always be the grownups in the room. The Church will never be quite the same after the virus, nor will our country, and it is time for the laity to bring strong personal ownership of revelation and conscience to the Eucharistic community to intensify its mission. Another seminary friend passed along this quote from the historian Barbara Tuchman in her 1987 A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century:
Survivors of the [Black] plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.
Catechetics begins with adults. Demand it. The kids will catch up.