Public Masses, the Bishops of England and Wales have announced, will cease from tomorrow. It makes perfect sense, given the speed with which coronavirus can spread. It is also a reminder that Mass is about more than Communion, and the public prayer of the Church is more than Mass. Saying the prayers of Mass at home, and making a Spiritual Communion, perhaps in the context of a recorded or live-streamed Mass, is one way of uniting ourselves with the Holy Sacrifice. We also participate in the perfect prayer offered to the Father through the Son by praying the Office (Liturgy of the Hours), including the Little Offices, and the rosary.
More serious, in fact, than not attending Mass is the possibility that we may not be able to confess our sins to a priest. The work-around here is to make an examination of conscience, as usual, and a “perfect act of contrition”: an expression of sorrow for our sins specifically because of our love for God, as opposed to fear of hell or any natural motive. Our sins will be remitted this way, though we remain obliged to confess them as soon as possible.
It should be possible for priests to find a way of hearing the confessions of the seriously ill, and to give them Holy Communion and Extreme Unction. In one-to-one interactions all kinds of precautions are possible, even if there are limits to how many such interactions a priest can arrange.
Part of our response to the crisis must be a recognition that suffering and death are consequences of Original Sin. In times of calamity the Church prays for God’s mercy: “ne in aeternum irascaris nobis” (lest Thy anger continue forever).
It is not that we imagine we can infer a person’s spiritual state from their level of prosperity. God punishes those he loves, and commonly gives the greatest saints the greatest share in the sufferings of Christ’s Passion. God’s punishment is medicinal, and we should allow it to have its effect on us.
We should take this opportunity to rediscover the Church’s rich tradition of penitential practices, prayers, and devotions, both public and private. It is time to pray the Stations of the Cross, the Seven Penitential Psalms, and the Parce Domine, and ask our priests to celebrate Votive Masses, or add prayers to Mass, for the “Remission of Sins”, “Any Necessity”, and “In Time of Pestilence”.
Some commentators have argued that the churches should stay open. But we need to apply both faith and reason in responding to the epidemic, using both natural and supernatural means.
One Greek Orthodox diocese has assured its members that the reception of Holy Communion cannot be the occasion for the transmission of disease. This is not the attitude of the Western tradition. Transubstantiation changes the substance and not the accidental properties of the Eucharistic species. Consecrated Hosts must be consumed within a month because otherwise there is a danger of them decaying. If they are not kept dry they can go mouldy. If a virus or poison is added to them, it stays there, absent special divine intervention. God expects us to take precautions, as with every area of life.
St Thomas Aquinas wrote:
If it be discovered that the wine has been poisoned, the priest should neither receive it nor administer it to others on any account, lest the life-giving chalice become one of death. (Summa Theologica IIIa Q83 a.6, ad3.)
Concerns over hygiene have long influenced the liturgy. The medieval precursor of the “Sign of Peace”, one of the first things to be banned in recent weeks, was the kissing of an object called a “paxbrede”. This fell out of use after the Council of Trent, seemingly for health reasons. Even the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia has decided to use disposable cups for the “Zapivka”, blessed wine consumed after their Masses. This was once consumed in parts of the West too.
It is not that medieval Catholics were too ignorant or superstitious to take these issues seriously. Most of them attended Masses in small and homogenous communities, and received Holy Communion only once a year. The issues in those days were different, and so were the means available to deal with them. Urbanisation and increased ease of travel brought in new challenges, and the Church adapted to these in appropriate ways.
The spiritual and the material are both part of the liturgy. And the spiritual and material are both part of the answer to coronavirus.