Extraordinary Times call for Extraordinary Measures
Many years ago I attended a conference which gathered liturgists, architects, and artists from around the world to anticipate worship in a digital age. We talked about virtual churches, virtual art, and even virtual liturgies. Though intrigued, I must admit that I was shocked by the ease with which so many participants anticipated the time when we would all worship “together” from the comfort of our home thanks to the miracle of the internet. What would that be like, people marveled. When I half-jokingly asked if we would have to come up with a theology for “virtual” real presence during on-line adoration, people gave me a blank stare. My suggestion that “burning” a virtual candle was even worse than dropping a coin in an electric candle stand was equally ignored. I did not really care because I did not believe that we would ever get there. And yet, here we are!
A week ago we started limiting physical access to our liturgies while making them only accessible electronically. I was forced to overcome the instinctive dislike I had of virtual liturgy so many years ago when the digital age was still in its infancy. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Catholic liturgy is by its very definition never virtual and digital but always real and physical. It has to be engaged in with as many human senses as possible and cannot be limited to a visual and /or acoustical experience. Also, Catholic liturgy is not received passively but needs to be engaged in actively. And, we need to be able to receive not only the form or words used for the sacraments; we also need to be able to receive the matter of the sacraments such as the Body and Blood of Christ during the Eucharist. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Being asked to stay away from one another in a time of crisis is so counter-intuitive for us Catholics. We want to be together, join our voices in song, walk around in processions, hug, kiss, and above all receive Holy Communion. And though we so desperately long to be together in these uncertain times, we also know that being together could make us--and worse--could make others very sick. When we need one another the most, we are deprived of one another's presence. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
This, of course is not the first time the Church has experienced times when the faithful were not able to gather. We have been deprived from communal worship during times of religious persecution, war, and previous pandemics. Unlike in earlier times, today we have an alternative way to be together as we join in virtual worship.
As we gather virtually for liturgy let us remember three things: first, we are the Body of Christ, united in a much deeper and more profound way than one that requires physical closeness. When a priest celebrates the Mass with only one or a few of us physically present the entire Body of Christ still celebrates the liturgy. Though we are not with him and one another physically, we are still together, spiritually bound by the mystery of the cross. Therefore, we will continue to live-stream as many of our liturgies as we can and invite you to join us. Our goal is to continue to create spiritual communion as the Body of Christ. You can announce your presence in the comments so we have a better sense of community, beyond mere numbers.
Second, though physical Communion is the absolute preference and necessary whenever possible, there are times when we need to resort to Spiritual Communion. This type of Communion is wholly dependent upon our true desire for physical Communion of which we are deprived. The 18th century Saint Alphonsus Liguori wrote this beautiful prayer:
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
As we participate in a virtual celebration of the Eucharist, let’s pray this prayer of Spiritual Communion as we long for the day when we will again be able to receive Holy Communion.
Third, now is the time to go way back in our history and to rekindle the domestic church and to re-invigorate our own religious imagination. Since we can no longer simply rely on the church to fulfill our religious needs we can work on that ourselves. Find your Bible, your religious images and your candles, and create a small prayer space. Many of us have lost the custom and comfort of praying together.
If there are several people in your household why not enjoy meals together during this home-stay and begin these meals with a simple prayer? Holy Week with its heightened religious sensitivities is also a good time to find ways in which to mark this most important week at home. We will send you some tips to help you bring the celebration of Holy Week into your homes.
When I attended above mentioned conference on virtual worship I truly never thought we would be doing this all over the world. Admittedly, it is not the preferred way; however, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. And I hope that as soon as this is all behind us we will rush back to church with joyful anticipation of the celebration of the liturgy. There we will again dip our fingers in baptismal fonts, join our voices in song, walk around in processions, hug, kiss, and above all receive Holy Communion.
Until then, let us pray with great fervor for an end to this pandemic; for the recovery of those who are ill with this corona virus; and for the eternal joy of those who have died.