By Robert Flock in ‘AMERICA, The Jesuit Review’, 8 June 2020
In many places around the world, including my diocese in Bolivia, we are unable to celebrate the Mass and other sacraments in public due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools are closed and catechism classes are canceled. These activities are considered ill-advised and are often forbidden by some civil and church authorities as part of “safer at home” and “social distancing” measures.
In the United States, petitions have been created to pressure for the easing of these measures and permit the celebration of the sacraments. There have also been creative efforts made, like drive-through confessions and parking lot Masses, to provide access to the sacraments. Others have preferred to limit themselves to the Mass transmitted via television, radio or social media, which is obviously not the same as physical participation. In this context, we have remembered the doctrine of “spiritual communion.” Anointing of the sick, when it seems most needed, is nearly impossible.
What Is at Stake?
In discerning the necessity to avoid contagion in comparison with the need to offer access to the sacraments, it is necessary to comprehend what is at stake in each area.
An initial consideration is that our Christian faith does not offer any immunity from contagion. This virus is a beast with no soul, opportunistic and potentially lethal, which has carried away many Catholic priests and the pastors of other churches and religions. It is practically impossible to celebrate the sacraments without the kind of contact that infects. Even the Sign of the Cross is suspect if we are to avoid touching the face and mouth where the virus has access to our throat and lungs. We must not underestimate the danger this virus represents.
As the pandemic has spread, we have become increasingly aware of just how contagious the novel coronavirus is. Many health care professionals, even with all the precautions they take, have become infected. In countries like Italy and Spain, a disproportionate number of priests have fallen ill and died.
Our Right to the Sacraments
The final document of the Pan-Amazonian synod declares:
The community has a right to the celebration of the Eucharist, which derives from its essence and its place in the economy of salvation. Sacramental life is the integration of the various dimensions of human life into the Paschal Mystery, which strengthens us. That is why flourishing communities truly cry out for the celebration of the Eucharist. It is, without a doubt, the point of arrival (culmination and consummation) of the community; but it is, at the same time, the point of departure for encounter, reconciliation, learning and catechesis, community growth.
Many of the Church communities in the Amazonian territory have enormous difficulties in attending the Eucharist. Sometimes it takes not just months but even several years before a priest can return to a community to celebrate the Eucharist, offer the sacrament of reconciliation or anoint the sick in the community.
These words summarize the argument for considering the ordination of married men to the priesthood. Ironically, many of the same groups that are now crying for permission to participate in the sacraments amid the pandemic were opposed to making any exception for priestly celibacy to increase the availability of the Eucharist in the Amazon, despite the pleas of the region’s Catholics. This contradiction should lead us to reflect on how we understand the sacraments in the life of the church and the faithful.
Sacraments and the Paschal Mystery
Although the efficacy of the sacraments is accomplished “ex opere operato,” that is, by the simple act of celebrating them validly, facilitated with proper disposition and motivations, we need to avoid the kind of fundamentalisms that lead to fanaticisms. For example, we consider baptism necessary for salvation, but we cannot consider the unbaptized as condemned to hell. At the same time, the church recognizes a baptism of blood in the case of martyrs and even baptism of desire, in which there is no sacramental form and certainly no certificate. This reality should exile any kind of “magical” understanding of the sacraments.
I especially like the synod’s affirmation that “Sacramental life is the integration of the various dimensions of human life into the Paschal Mystery” because instead of focusing on something so abstract as “grace,” it touches upon the practical realities of daily life: birth and death, family and community, our daily bread, sexuality and illness. If we live the sacraments in their true depth as baptized believers, when we sit at the eucharistic table we will experience an authentic family communion, and when we sit at the family table we will experience a eucharist, because both activities will be participation in the death and resurrection of Christ that breathes the gift of the Holy Spirit to us and through us.
Gethsemane and Emmaus
Integrated into the paschal mystery, the drama we are living now has parallels in the biblical passages on the Garden of Gethsemane and the Road to Emmaus.
We are in Gethsemane because with all of humanity we have to face the challenge of this pandemic, praying, “Father, if possible, spare me this chalice, yet may your will be done rather than mine.” The decision of every health worker who attends to coronavirus patients is such because they have to accept the risk of contaminating themselves and their family. And of course, what we all do to avoid spreading the virus, authorities and citizens, requires the same prayer if we are to make the decisions that are in accord with our heavenly Father’s will. Certainly, those already infected, especially those who may soon take their last breath, live this prayer as well. It would be sad indeed if those closest to Jesus were to sleep through this moment, without spiritual understanding, without participating in the paschal mystery.
We are also on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus wished to be recognized in the breaking of the bread, but first it was necessary to make the walk that allowed him to explain the Scriptures in the light of his passion, and his passion in the light of the Scriptures. We also await our participation in the breaking of the bread, but perhaps we need to take the time we are now given to make the walk to Emmaus first. On our way, we need to learn to hear the voice of the risen Christ as he walks with us in this moment when it is difficult to understand what has happened these days. “How slow you are to understand!” Jesus says to us.
It is still disputed if Emmaus was 60 or 160 stadia from Jerusalem; today, Emmaus is more distant for some people than for others because it is not so easy to read the signs of the times, especially when we are in the midst of the storm. We need to better understand the integration of the paschal mystery and the present pandemic. This requires a dialogue with the Lord that is neither hurried nor superficial. When the time comes, Jesus himself will take bread, give the blessing, break it and share it with us. If we have taken advantage of the road, then we will recognize him with greater clarity and experience a transforming fire that will long burn within our hearts.