The COVID19 virus came to Ireland in February. On the 12th March schools and universities were closed, social distancing was introduced and the St Patrick’s day festivities were cancelled. On Friday March 27th Irish people were asked to remain at home; over 70’s and vulnerable people were asked to cocoon and all inessential outings were banned. Lockdown.
There was widespread compliance; widespread loss of work and income; widespread disruption of lives, especially for young adults whose lives are made up of so many short term goals and plans. Health workers became cherished; grocers and bin collectors thanked daily. Adult children came home to be isolated with family and their parents found themselves with treasured bonus time. For many the pause button had been pressed. Domestic abusers and addicts continued to wreak havoc and harm.
Church services were cancelled in the main. Sunday Mass, Confirmations and weddings were called off. Almost immediately we began to see the filming of Mass and other prayer; an invitation to watch and remotely participate with clergy vested in empty churches or in their living rooms, continuing to pray – or possibly lead prayer – at a distance. The pope was filmed first blessing an empty St Peter’s Square and then preaching to the city and world in the empty square at dusk one damp evening in Rome.
What was this about? Why this response and what was behind it?
On Sunday, March 29th, I tweeted (@abfrancis1):
I’m deeply ambivalent about the avalanche of livestreamed ‘liturgy.’ I appreciate the pastoral intent. Is a video of a clergyperson’s prayer the best or only way we can worship or connect? Is looking at the ‘real thing’ from a distance our best shot at Eucharist today?
I am not a regular tweeter and don’t have a large following, so was surprised at the responses – their number and the feeling behind them. One was a bit annoyed (stung?) and defended their practice of streaming services. There was some wondering whether my feelings were particularly Catholic; another person shared a poignant moment with her elderly relative watching Mass online.
Feeling thus ambivalent I tuned in to the responses of other people. As lockdown occurred I was in the privileged position of teaching three modules with undergraduate ministry students. These modules all transferred mid-way to online presentation, which had drawbacks, but also meant that participants had freedom to contribute quite considered pieces on forums. They expressed their satisfaction and gratitude for online Mass (in particular) as it gave them a sense of connection and spiritual nourishment. Many expressed the view that while they could not be physically present at Eucharist and receive in person, they had the ‘next best thing’ in online presence and spiritual communion. The concept of ‘spiritual communion’ was revived and explainers were added to diocesan websites.
In May 2020, churches in Ireland reopened for private prayer. The narrative and reasoning behind this did not include the idea that one could pray anywhere else. Churches are now open for a limited number to participate in liturgy. Back to normal, for now.
I know everyone did and is doing their best. It is a pastoral response to want to continue to provide spiritual leadership in difficult times – to do something in response to crisis. In doing before really reflecting, as we often have to, we also reveal something about ourselves. It is often the time when the core beliefs emerge. I want to think about these responses – without judgement of those who are engaged in them, and wonder at this early stage what has been revealed. In retrospect – from September – I see that in that moment frozen in time, we have an ice-clear snapshot of where we are as a Church, particularly regarding liturgy.
Online liturgy, especially Eucharist was seen as the natural replacement for Sunday Mass. For a Church which has insisted on Sunday obligation, real presence and has strongly identified who can and cannot receive holy Communion this was surely not an obvious progression. What made this the natural solution, when the Church could equally have turned to its theology of the Word, its body of literature on the domestic Church, its tradition of solidarity as Eucharist presence, or creation theology, or other well-established Church traditions?
Here – knowing that much has already been said and written – I would like to make two, brief, observations.
- We are a clerical Church.
COVID liturgy has revealed that we see the agency, power and centre of the Church in the person of the priest. I saw a number of initiatives online, not all Eucharistic, but all centred on the priest. I saw filmed Eucharist, filmed adoration, evening prayer, and priests and bishops and an archbishop take the exposed Blessed Sacrament out into the community. In each case the message present in this liturgical experience is that ‘we’ have it and we are sharing it with you. Those who, in the normal run of things, felt like the audience at Mass – despite our theology – were probably right. A priest in his living room, fully vested, uttering both the prayers and the responses: ‘and with my spirit…;’ a priest celebrating Mass while soothing his fractious dog reminding one of Luke 5; a priest balancing his ‘phone in his left hand while enacting the gestures of the Mass with his right: these images spoke of a centring and self-reference of the clergy to the exclusion of everyone else.
During the lockdown a colleague made the point that people in Ireland did not attend the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park because they felt it was just as good to watch it on television. They had already received the message that they were spectators. COVID has made this explicit. Will we look back and see this as a key time of disempowerment and disenfranchisement of laity? Bishop Antonio Gómez Cantaro of Teruel and Albarracín (Ecclesia March 24th) made these observations early in the lockdown:
There have been some priests who have got very nervous and have filled all our media, where we normally communicate, with prayers, with calls to pray, with the possibility of following the Holy Mass via streaming, that is, live via web, they have sent us links to be able to see the Blessed Sacrament exposed…and some have even get out walking around the streets with the Monstrance as we would at Corpus Christi (and I wonder with what permission, because for some things we are extremely strict, and for other matters not as much) Such bombardment makes me ask many questions. Are we not treating the faithful as if they would not know how to pray, dependant on the clergy to do it? What have we done up until now, having them as mere spectators? Don’t we think that so many Masses on the screens keep the persons in the passivity of watching? Or is it that we want to justify our priesthood? Are the religious services broadcasted in televisions and radios not enough? They have been enough until now. What is more important, a moment of prayer or of lectio divina with the Word, or to watch a Mass on the screen?
This was echoed in April by Venezuelan theologian Rafael Luciani who said the focus on online Masses gave the impression that ‘grace can’t leave churches, while the virus travels around the world,’ (Jesuitas, April 3, 2020).
I observe that the sense of the presence of Christ with the faithful; the domestic Church; the vibrancy of the Word was hardly present. Where was the encouragement, during the Triduum, to pray together in home or neighbourhood with the readings, or to venerate the cross, or light a vigil candle for the resurrection? Acknowledging that some funerals would be conducted by lay people, the National Centre for Liturgy (Ireland) made resources available for prayers a lay person could lead at a burial which omitted blessings. This raises the serious question of whether the priest has so fully appropriated all of our liturgical practices that it has become transgressive for the lay faithful to pray at all, even when a priest is unavailable?
What of Holy Communion? What theological grounds are there for the presiding priest to receive with no provision for the participating faithful? It soon became clear that the provision was ‘spiritual communion.’ A colleague wondered whether this meant that those normally refused Communion (divorced and remarried people; people in homosexual relationships) were now reunited with the Church. Orthodox theologian, Marcus Plested, referred to ‘mass excommunication of the laity’ (September 2020). I have been minded of the core Eucharistic text,1 Cor 11:17-34, which admonishes part of the community for eating while others go hungry and adds a severe penalty for those who celebrate Eucharist in this ‘unworthy manner,’ (1 Cor 11:27). In particular, in its closing sentences Paul writes ‘when you come together to eat, wait for one another,’ (1 Cor 11:33). Where is this gracious waiting, this pause in solidarity, in our experience of these months?
Becky Stephens raised this on Twitter (April 17). She questioned whether Church of England clergy should celebrate Eucharist online, observing that clergy who did, say they did so on behalf of their congregations and those who did not do so said that they were abstaining in solidarity with the people. She questions whether the idea of abstaining still makes it ‘all about the priest,’ and wanted to focus on the people.
Though there was little balance, there was this recognition of the domestic Church. Thomas O’Loughlin wrote (March 25th, 2020):
..every table is a sacred place. Jesus encountered people and taught at their tables: every table is a place where we can encounter the Lord in those with us. We will not be eating together as sisters and brothers in a church for the next few months, so let’s start recalling that whenever we eat, we should be thankful: “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). We should always be thankful for the food we eat (saying grace before meals) and for the pleasure of eating and being together (grace after meals).
2. We seek communion in our deepest selves.
My second observation is more hopeful. We have a human, divine, sacred impulse to seek communion. While churches fretted about whether or how to open, or provide liturgy, what words could or should be uttered and by whom, the Eucharist of the world was present in the service and sacrifice of healthcare workers, families, neighbours and communities. Here liturgy was the work of the people, and the presence of thanksgiving, communion, love, sacrifice, fraction and sharing were clearly visible. God’s Word was proclaimed by those who spoke their care, their solidarity and their commitment to hope. It was whispered by bedsides and even as the body bags were zipped up. It was there in the calls and Zooms among family, friends and colleagues. There was a united cry of epiclesis to the Spirit who is not limited to formulae or particularity, but is the Giver of Life and the Challenger of death. This Spirit, really present, worked her own miracle of connection and encounter.
We went out of doors in the glorious weather and heard the birds singing. We noticed the world around us in cities and countryside. The Spirit of life led us to a deeper connection and encounter with creation. Pope Francis writes, (2012):
As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (9)
This Eucharistic experience of the natural and human world was intuited by very many people in their experience of lockdown. We felt more united with each other and the world than we did before, and were enlivened and encouraged.
This was reflected in the revelation that, in Ireland, it turns out we believe that we are a community. Then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s speech on March 17, 2020, referred to vulnerable people as the ‘most precious in our society.’ This speech, and his subsequent speeches focussed on solidarity:
To all of those across the world who have lost a loved one to this virus – we are with you. To all those living in the shadow of what is to come – we are with you… Tonight I send a message of friendship and of hope from Ireland to everyone around the world this Saint Patrick’s Day.
And, ten days later:
Freedom was hard won in our country, and it jars with us, to restrict and limit individual liberties, even temporarily. But freedom is not an abstract concept. We give it meaning every single day – in the way we live our lives – and in the decisions we take willingly to protect our loved ones… Restricting how we live our lives so that so that others may live. I am asking us for a time, to forego our personal liberties and freedoms for a greater cause. Tonight I am appealing to every man, woman and child in our country to make these sacrifices – not out of self-interest but for each other.
Pope St John Paul II (2004) affirmed the universal nature of Eucharist when he wrote:
The Eucharist is not merely an expression of communion in the Church’s life; it is also a project of solidarity for all of humanity (27).
This was echoed by Pope Benedict in Sacramentum Caritatis (2005)
Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become “bread that is broken” for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world. Keeping in mind the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we need to realize that Christ continues today to exhort his disciples to become personally engaged: “You yourselves, give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16). (88)
It was surely not their intention that this be seen separately from the celebration of Eucharist by the faith community. We need sacramental, social and ‘cosmic Eucharist,’ (Francis, 2012, 236) but when liturgical celebration had become temporarily impossible we saw it in human and ecological communities of solidarity and hope. It behoves us now to notice and name it.
I am reluctant to write any real conclusion to this piece as, while much has been said, really, still, so little is known. This is not over, and hindsight is still a long way off. My memories of the last seven months are of being in one place; having two of my kids home; ‘phone calls with my son; my husband undergoing chemotherapy, and that glorious weather; the day I could finally get back to the sea, and keeping in touch with friends and family. It has been very different for others. Let’s look after one another. Keep the faith!
Benedict, Sacramentum Caritatis (2005). http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis.html (downloaded 19/9/2020)
Francis, Laudato Sí, (2012) http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html (downloaded 19/9/2929)
Gomez Cantaro, Antonio, ‘La Inusitada Efervescencia,’ in Ecclesia y Revista, translated by Jaime Mardones Rosieque, March 2020. https://www.revistaecclesia.com/la-inusitada-efervescencia-por-antonio-gomez-cantero/ (downloaded 19/9/2020)
John Paul II Mane Nobiscum Domine, 2004, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2004/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20041008_mane-nobiscum-domine.html
Luciani Rafael, Jesuitas, April 3rd, 2020, https://jesuitas.lat/es/noticias/1945-rafael-luciani-es-la-hora-de-ayunar-del-pan-y-aprender-a-comulgar-con-la-palabra (downloaded 19/9/2020).
National Centre for Liturgy, Rite of Burial for use by a lay person. http://www.liturgy-ireland.ie/uploads/8/4/2/9/8429650/rite_of_burial_for_use_by_a_lay_prayer_leader.pdf (downloaded 19/9/2020)
O’Loughlin, Thomas, ‘Reimagining the Eucharist,’ The Tablet, 25th March, 2020. https://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/17770/reimagining-the-eucharist (downloaded 1/4/2020)
Plested, Marcus, Woolf Institute Excerpt from Lockdown Conversation No 3, 17/9/2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=26&v=PCVBEH-TuAY&feature=emb_logo (downloaded 19/9/2020)
Stephens, Becky, @BeckyLStephens, https://twitter.com/BeckyLStephens/status/1251065330824339457
Varadkar, Leo, March 17th, 2020. https://merrionstreet.ie/en/News-Room/News/Address_by_An_Taoiseach_Leo_Varadkar_17th_March.html
March 27th, 2020 https://www.gov.ie/en/speech/f27026-speech-of-an-taoiseach-leo-varadkar-td-government-buildings-27-march/