In a new directive from Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation For Divine Worship and the Sacraments, published with the approval of Pope Francis, Catholics are urged to recognize that virtual participation in the liturgy and the life of the Church is not a replacement for the real thing. The letter, published today, is entitled, “Let us return to the Eucharist with joy!”
“[A]s soon as circumstances permit,” Sarah’s letter says, “it is necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life, which has the church building as its home and the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, as ‘the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; and at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).”
Sarah addresses, as well, the actions taken by the bishops of the world during the time of the pandemic:
“The Christian community has never sought isolation and has never made the Church a city with closed doors,” the Letter reads. “Formed in the value of community life and in the search of the common good, Christians have always sought insertion into society.”
Even in the midst of the pandemic, writes Cardinal Sarah, “a great sense of responsibility has emerged. In listening to and collaborating with civil authorities and experts,” he notes that the Bishops of the Church “were prompt to make difficult and painful decisions, even to the point of suspending the participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist for a long period.”
While recognizing the place of livestreamed Masses in specific circumstances, Sarah emphasizes the dangers of prolonged absences from physical participation in the life of the Church:
The Cardinal emphasized that “as much as the means of communication perform a valued service to the sick and those who are unable to go to church, and have performed a great service in the broadcast of Holy Mass at a time when there was no possibility of community celebrations, no broadcast is comparable to personal participation or can replace it.”
On the contrary, he says, liturgies in which the faithful participate only virtually “risk distancing us from a personal and intimate encounter with the incarnate God” whose presence among His people was not virtual but Real, as He said: ”He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me and I in him” (John 6:56).
Cardinal Sarah insists, “This physical contact with the Lord is vital, indispensable, irreplaceable.” Therefore, he continues, “once the concrete measures that can be taken to reduce the spread of the virus to a minimum have been identified and adopted, it is necessary that all resume their place in the assembly of brothers and sisters” and to “invite and encourage again those brothers and sisters who have been discouraged, frightened, absent or uninvolved for too long.”
In respect to concrete sacramental disciplines, Sarah writes that “improvised ritual experiments” — are to be avoided, and that the faithful have the right “to receive the Body of Christ and to worship the Lord present in the Eucharist in the manner provided for, without limitations that go even beyond what is provided for by the norms of hygiene issued by public authorities or Bishops.” This last is apparently an oblique reference to situations where reception of Holy Communion has been forcibly changed to on the hand only, which many of the faithful have protested.
Moving forward, the letter insists
“it is up to the prudent but firm action of the Bishops to ensure that the participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist is not reduced by public authorities to a ‘gathering’, and is not considered comparable or even subordinate to forms of recreational activities.”
Once again citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, Cardinal Sarah makes clear that civil authorities cannot legislate on liturgical norms. On the contrary, “only the competent ecclesiastical authorities” can legislate in this area.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.