I suspect that the clergy had a fundamentally different experience of the Covid lockdown from the laity. We may speak airily of how “our churches were closed” and how “we” had no access to the sacraments for months, but in reality no priest had to experience months without the Mass or the Blessed Sacrament as their people have done, and I think we would do well to acknowledge this, and the fact that it will have shaped our reactions to the crisis, whatever the dictates of necessity.
The faithful are happy that priests have continued to say Mass, I am sure, but if we want to “smell of the sheep”, in Pope Francis’s phrase, we need to acknowledge and comfort the shock and bereavement many have experienced in the past months. Covid meant priests were unable to minister sacramentally to their people in person. To borrow from St Augustine: for you, the laity, we have been priests but we have not been able to be with you as Christians in your fast. I understand why many people say they have felt abandoned by their pastors. It will not be enough to tell them that they oughtn’t to feel like this.
I was, in a sense, fortunate in that my own routine had already accustomed me to celebrating Mass without a congregation and I have learnt various things from it.
The first is that my primary focus remains exactly the same, whether or not there is a congregation present. The celebration of Mass is directed to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. It is directed towards the invisible, transcendent God through the sacrifice of his Son which is made present and visible on the altar in sacramental sign.
This is much harder to appreciate if I do not face a crucifix or a tabernacle or a liturgical direction which looks beyond. No, it is not the cognitive dissonance that some liturgists claim, to celebrate Mass facing the tabernacle. There is only one sacrifice of the Cross, one bread, one body. I am not confused because Christ is in the tabernacle and present on the altar, because it is the same Christ, perpetuating His one offering until the end of time, not some kind of liturgical spoiler, lessening the meaning or impact of the other. It is only ever in Him who lives always to make intercession for us that I can offer this worship, or rather, be drawn into His offering.
I personally could not celebrate the Mass of the Baptised facing a camera, still less in a church whose pews were lined with photographs, because these depersonalised things would focus me acutely on the lack of anyone present; whereas without them, I can focus on the metaphysical power of the Mass to connect across time and space and hold people present in my heart.
For me, cameras and photos would close an empty circle, emphasising the sociological dimension, whereas by faith I know that one never celebrates Mass “alone” nor indeed merely for the particular group of people pictured in the congregation.
This was the motivation and origin of the tradition of celebrating Mass on the tombs of the martyrs according to Pope Emeritus Benedict. It was an outward, visible sign that we celebrate the Sacrifice of the Lord in the Communion of Saints, a communion which spans all times and ages. We are not somehow bringing Him to life in the liturgy for those assembled. It is the other way round; He is enfolding the world in His sacrificial offering of the Cross.
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