Churches are closing, Masses are being canceled, bishops are dispensing the faithful from the Sunday obligation, priests are becoming increasingly unavailable for confession and anointing of the sick. This year, the Holy Week liturgies will be celebrated in Rome without the faithful in attendance. During this outbreak of Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), Catholics are beginning to grapple with a new reality: a loss of access to the sacraments while the world struggles to contain the disease to manageable levels through quarantines and social distancing.
Non-Catholic Christian communities and non-Christians are also facing a loss of public worship in their churches and houses of worship. For many of them however, they’re able to worship on their own from home. The Catholic eucharistic liturgy, though, is very much centered around gathering in a church and is dependent upon a priest confecting the Eucharist. Life without Mass and the sacraments for an indefinite period is frightening.
We may not be able to remember a time when Catholics were entirely cut off from access to the sacraments, but the Church remembers such times in its history.
When foreign missionaries were kicked out of the country in the sixteenth century, Catholics in Japan survived for over 250 years without access to priests. They had baptism and matrimony, which can be celebrated by laity in the absence of clergy, but no other sacraments. Japanese Catholics survived so well under these conditions that a thriving underground Catholic community was there to greet the missionaries when they were allowed back in Japan in the nineteenth century—a country in which the rest of the world assumed that Christianity had died.
Life as a Catholic without access to the sacraments certainly isn’t an ideal situation. The sacraments are the ordinary means by which God dispenses to us his grace. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions (1131).
Especially wrenching is loss of access to the Mass and the Eucharist. The Mass is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the font from which all her power flows” (1074) and the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (1324).
Nonetheless, the Church allows for precautions to be taken in the celebration of the sacraments in times of plague. In earlier centuries, during epidemics of contagious diseases, priests could use a small spatula to apply the sacred oil during the anointing of the sick rather than risk touching victims. Distancing priests from the faithful to prevent the spread of disease may seem to be a drastic measure, but it is one that bishops may choose to take in the hopes of preserving life.
If lay Catholics have proven themselves capable, under extraordinary conditions, of surviving and thriving as the mystical body of Christ when deprived of the sacraments for hundreds of years, it’s possible for us to make it through the next few months with our faith lives intact. Let’s look at some ideas for living out our Faith in an era of social distancing.
Watch the Mass on your computer or television. Dioceses have been ramping up to provide the eucharistic liturgy through livestreaming. In some areas, the Masses will be available in multiple languages. Catholic television networks, such as EWTN, also offer daily televised Masses. Remote attendance doesn’t fulfill an obligation to attend Mass, which is why many bishops have been dispensing the Sunday and holy day obligation for their dioceses, but viewing the Mass can provide spiritual comfort and an opportunity for making a spiritual communion.
Learn the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Divine Office, is the daily prayer of the Church and is itself a liturgy. Clergy and religious communities pray these prayers every day; laity aren’t required to do so but may join in if they wish. Praying the office from your home puts you in spiritual communion with everyone around the world who prays these prayers every day. Universalis provides the prayers of the Divine Office online. Apps are available for your phone or tablet that will make praying the office available to you wherever you are.
Read Scripture. Give Us This Day and Magnificat, monthly periodicals that are used by many Catholics as missalettes for Mass, are offering digital versions for free during the crisis that you can read online or on your phone or tablet. Both magazines also include abridged versions of Morning and Evening Prayer if you don’t want to commit to learning the full Liturgy of the Hours just yet. The US Catholic bishops offer the daily Mass readings each day on their web site.
Keep tabs on the state of your soul by using an examination of conscience on a regular basis. When sacramental confession is not available, the faithful may make an act of contrition to God, with the intention of going to confession when it’s available again. The Catechism states that sacramental confession is necessary for Catholics “unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession” (1484). Ask your parish to keep the community informed of opportunities for the sacrament of penance—including general confession and general absolution, if those are permitted by the local ordinary (1483).
Pray the rosary and other prayers of the Church, such as the Divine Mercy chaplet. If you don’t already have a family ritual of prayer together, now is a great time to start. Common prayer with others during a quarantine should be limited to your immediate family—not to all your extended relatives, friends, and neighbors. This may seem to be a “no brainer,” but suggestions have been floated in social media to invite over others to watch Sunday Mass together. Please, don’t do that.
A Bible study or a spiritual book reading group can be launched through video conferencing platforms. Or, if you’re not that ambitious, you can start a private Facebook group for families in your parish (with your pastor’s permission). A good spiritual book to start with might be Silence, Shūsaku Endō’s novel (not to be confused with Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation) about the persecution of Japanese Catholics and their struggle to keep their faith alive. Connecting with the larger world through modern technology will also allow you to check in on your social circle, providing necessary support to those suffering from depression, loneliness, or boredom.
Wear your sacramentals. The crucifix, brown scapular, and religious medals the Church offers are “occasions of grace” and reminders of the faith. Display holy cards of your favorite saints on their feast days and tell their stories to your children. Gather up your Catholic devotional items and create a home altar if you don’t have one already.
Create a do-it-yourself retreat. You don’t have to leave home to go on retreat. You don’t have to pay money or take time away from your daily responsibilities. Heading off to a remote location for a few days may make going on retreat easier, but a lack of resources doesn’t make going on retreat impossible. You can go on retreat at home, whenever you wish. It requires nothing more than a concerted effort to lift your heart and mind to God while going about your ordinary life.
Support the Church by continuing to give as generously as you can to your parish, diocese, local religious communities, and to your favorite Catholic charities. These groups will be working hard to provide services to the needy and to pray for our world in the days ahead. Your support will make their work possible. It’s not easy to think of almsgiving when our own future is uncertain, but as Catholics we are called to help others through difficult times—even when it hurts.