Sunday’s Masses for All Saints Day may be the last many Catholics in England attend for some time. From Thursday, according to government guidance released on All Hallow’s Eve, public communal worship is suspended until the 2nd of December as the country enters a second lockdown.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, OP signed a statement from the CBCEW asking the Government to produce evidence that this is a warranted restriction. They highlight the great good done by churches in this time of crisis, and cite the “deep anguish” the suspension of public worship will cause: the Mass is the lifeblood of the Church’s community and charitable work. Without grave reason the suspension of public worship is a deep injustice. Catholics of England have welcomed their bishops’ demand that the government give an evidential account of the returning lockdown restrictions.
There is more than lockdown fatigue behind the distress many of the faithful fear at the prospect of once more being restricted to live-streamed Masses and deprived of physical participation in the Eucharist. One thing that has been highlighted by the pandemic restrictions is the sacramental heart of Catholic practice. A streamed Mass, though a blessing to the homebound, is always something less to the faithful, a make-do at best.
(See our November cover story on how the virtual revolution is changing the life of the Church.)
The Mass is more than group prayer that can be thrown online as easily as a staff meeting can be thrown on Zoom. It revolves around the actual presence of the Lord: in the Word, in the person of the priest, in the assembled faithful, and, most profoundly, in the Eucharist. Even those who make a spiritual communion are deprived of the intimate presence of the Lord they experience by hearing Mass in person. There are grave reasons that can justify the acceptance of this deprivation for a time, but that does not make it less of a deprivation.
The timing of the new lockdown could hardly be worse in a liturgical sense: November is a month that unifies the Universal Church in a very particular way. We begin with the Solemnity of All Saints, celebrating the Church in Glory. From this high point in the Church’s calendar we turn next to the Holy Souls in purgatory. We see out the liturgical year praying for the dead in a heightened and intensified way. November is the month when we traditionally have Masses said for the departed, for it is the sacrifice of the Mass that speeds the Holy Souls to Heaven. Priests will still offer these Masses, of that we can be certain, but the faithful will be distanced from this time of intense graces, a time when the veil between this world and the next wears especially thin in the celebration of the Mass and the whole of the Church–the living and the dead–share a particular fervour in prayer worship.
As the liturgical year draws to a close the readings and prayers of the Mass remind us more of our own mortality. Death will come to all of us, just as it came to the Saints and the Holy Souls, and we must live as if that coming is imminent. In this sense, there is an ironic unity between the messages of the government and the voice of the Church. But there is a crucial difference: the Church views death against the aspect of eternity, which we see up close in our November liturgical practices that unite the living and the dead in prayer.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created a situation in which the supernatural has become more solid, more tangible. It has brought death close to us in contemplation, and, for many, in reality. The liturgy of the Mass for the next month is particularly attuned to teaching us that the Church is something larger than death. The community to which we belong is living in a spiritual sense.
We will end the liturgical year with the great feast of Christ the King. No temporal power can subdue death, but Christ has conquered all. The living and the dead have the same ruler.
All things considered, November is a very good time to be at Mass. If it could be shown that there was great danger in the faithful gathering together to worship God, to pray for the dead, and to meditate upon the return of Christ in glory, then in a spirit of charity and penance these are goods and graces that must be sacrificed for a time. If the government cannot answer the just challenge of our bishops: if they cannot show that there is still grave danger the virus will be spread to the vulnerable despite the restrictions and Covid-secure practices undertaken in all the Catholic churches up and down the country at public Masses; then there can be no compelling cause — hence no sufficient reason — to suspend public worship.
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