The Return of the Sunday Mass Obligation Will Be a Chance to Do Things Better — Let’s Not Waste It
The modified moratorium on Mass in many parts of the country has been followed by anemic returns of parishioners. It is also accompanied by dormant fears that a resurgence of COVID infections with the arrival of the traditional winter flu season may lead to a second ecclesiastical lockdown, irrespective of what civil authorities do. Catholics lost Easter 2020. Will they also lose Christmas?
As Catholics have trickled back to Sunday Mass, properly spaced out in church and at Communion time, it’s surprising that some things don’t change. If you want to minimize exposure, perhaps that rambling homily needs some discipline. Likewise, is the Roman Canon the best option for Mass for Tuesday of the 31st Week of the Year?
At some point — perhaps when a reliable and morally ethical vaccine is available — Catholics may return in some proportion to Sunday Mass, and bishops may actually begin to reimpose the Sunday obligation. At that point — as we resume something approaching a “normal” Sunday practice and discipline, we should use the opportunity to assess where we have been and launch some changes. Here are a few I propose:
As Sunday Mass resumes and especially when dispensations from the dominical obligation are rescinded, a transition is called for. Catholics should not just be told “as of next Sunday, you should go to Mass” and then act as if nothing unusual has happened since March 2020. Return to regular sacramental celebration should be preceded by appropriate preparation. That means, in many cases, preceding such a “return to Sunday” by ample opportunity for parish celebration of the sacrament of Penance. The lapse of regular Mass attendance was most likely also accompanied by a lack of regular sacramental participation, a situation that has now persisted in varying forms for over eight months. “Returning to Mass” should not be just a return to canonical obligations about participation in Mass; it must, first and foremost, mean returning to Mass in the true spiritual sense, which first of all presupposes “acknowledging our sins so that may worthily celebrate these sacred mysteries” (Invitation to the Penitential Rite).
Such spiritual preparation on the parish level means taking into account the spiritual tensions and challenges, indeed, the likely sins, that Catholics have faced amidst the extraordinary situation of these past few months and of the Church’s reduced sacramental ministry on the local level.
This preparatory return should also reinforce a discipline that has been neglected in the Church in recent years: recognizing the inherent nexus between the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. If, through the 1960s, there had been a previous exaggeration of that connection, fed by a supposed scrupulosity of traditional piety, it cannot be denied that the pendulum has swung decisively in the other direction for decades. Already in the 1980s, pastoral journals were commenting on the phenomenon of “frequent Communion and infrequent Confession.” Our exit from COVID lockdown should afford an opportunity to reset that balance.
The spiritual preparation leading to restoring the post-COVID dominical obligation should not just simply prepare for this one event. It is an opportunity to reset the long-term praxis connected with receiving the Eucharist. The most important of those correctives should be restoring the balance between turning from sin, expressed by Confession (devotional or otherwise) and going to Communion.
Return to Sunday Mass should also embody a plan to catechize Mass-goers in the essentials of Catholic belief related to the Eucharist and, particularly, to the Real Presence. As Pew pointed out in August 2019, a significant number of Catholics simply do not understand what the Church teaches the Eucharist to be. The moratorium on Sunday Mass that went into effect seven months later simply deferred doing anything about it.
The resumption of Sunday Mass under dominical obligation after the prolonged Eucharistic fast of the past months should be accompanied by a systematic effort to re-teach Catholics just what the Eucharist is. Under these extraordinary circumstances, it is wholly appropriate to take multiple Sunday homilies to address that deficiency.
The Eucharistic theological illiteracy that Pew revealed showed itself during the pandemic Mass moratorium in the opinions of those who opined that Catholics should not be so “upset” or “Eucharistically fixated” about the unavailability of Mass, because of Jesus’ “presence” available in prayer (and any gatherings for it), reading Scripture, performing corporal or spiritual works of mercy, or spiritual Communion. Those errors need to be refuted.
While all those activities in some way make Christ “present,” there is no more privileged or real “Presence” of Jesus Christ in our world, short of the Last Judgment, than sacramentally in the Eucharist. All other “presences” pale to that Presence. That point needs to be made, lest we undermine the essential nature of the whole sacramental order.
In the same vein, “spiritual Communion” needs to be contextualized. “Spiritual Communion” is not “as good as” real Communion, as the prayer itself makes clear: “come at least spiritually into my heart.” To establish a false equivalence or suggest that the bottom line of any “Communion” is reducible to the spiritual likewise undermines the whole sacramental order. Why then receive Communion if we can “communicate” by prayer? Why then go to Confession if we can “repent” by an act of contrition (which, by its nature, must be perfect and must include the intention of recourse to the real sacrament when available)?
I do not want to denigrate the importance of spiritual Communion but I do want to reestablish balance. Spiritual Communion does not replace actual Communion. At the same time I wager that, before the pandemic, Catholics of a certain age had never even heard of “spiritual Communion,” given the phenomenon of almost universal reception of the Eucharist at the typical Sunday Mass. Now that this treasure of spiritual Communion has again acquired a certain prominence, good Eucharistic catechesis should encourage acts of spiritual Communion coupled with a stronger awareness of the direct relationship between regular Communion and regular Confession. While the notion that Sunday Mass and Eucharistic reception was rightly regained by Vatican II, the idea of frequent actual Communion and infrequent Confession is a deviation needing correction. Recovering the notion of spiritual Communion reinforces the bond between Mass and Communion while also leaving room to recover the bond between going to Communion and consistent effort to grow in holiness through the sacrament of Penance which specifically exists to overcome that which deters that growth in holiness, i.e., sin.
What I suggest here can be implemented by good pastors at the parish level. But it would be wrong to think of this vision as just an “optional” extra some zealous pastors might consider. The problems bedeviling popular Eucharistic understanding and practice are not confined to individual parishes. They are widespread, deep, and the product of arguably decades of insufficient catechesis and neglect of pastoral correction. At the very least, this vision should be applied on the diocesan level. Since every Eucharist in a diocese is celebrated in union with the bishop of that diocese, it is the bishop’s primary responsibility to see that it is celebrated rightly, not just according to the rubrics but — above all — with proper understanding and spiritual disposition. Indeed, even a diocesan level is, in some sense, too “limited” for the remedial program proposed here: this item should be on the agenda of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who should go out with it as an episcopal conference for the country as a whole. That kind of pastoral action is the primary action in which the USCCB should be engaged.
The primary focus of any such pastoral plan should be on fixing faulty Eucharistic understanding and reinforcing greater holiness in Eucharistic practice. In conclusion, I would also add two disciplinary observations:
(1) Bishops need seriously to enforce the right of Catholics to the celebration of the Mass according to the Church’s Rite and norms. While the incidence of clerical improvisation seems to have declined over its apogee in the 1970s and 1980s, it still exists in places. This summer’s fiasco of priests needing to be reordained because of the fiasco of invalid baptisms in some dioceses, the result of a clericalism in which deacons and priests substituted their theological predilections and invalid forms for sacramental rites should have been a clear shot across the bow about the need for valid celebration of the sacraments in form, matter, and intention.
(2) The gradual current return of Catholics to Sunday Mass in which even Communion lines are socially distanced demonstrates that, in fact, the proliferation of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist has been unnecessary and, therefore, should be cut back in accordance with the limits imposed by canonical and liturgical norms and not de facto customs. The same can be said with regard to the distribution of the Eucharist under both species.
The gradual return to some semblance of “normalcy” surrounding celebration of the Sunday Eucharist as both a privilege and duty of Catholics is also an opportunity to correct problems, deficiencies and abuses that have crept into how that celebration has taken shape in North America over probably five decades. It is a challenge for episcopal leadership, not just at the individual diocesan but the collective collegial level. Are they up to it?