In many countries, the practice of Christian worship is disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic. The faithful cannot meet in the churches, they cannot participate sacramentally in the Eucharistic sacrifice. This situation is a source of great suffering. It is also an opportunity that God gives us to better understand the necessity and the value of liturgical worship.
As Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, but above all in deep communion in the humble service of God and his Church, I wish to offer this meditation to my brothers in the episcopate and the priesthood and in people of God to try to learn some lessons from this situation.
It has sometimes been said that, because of the epidemic and the confinement ordered by the civil authorities, public worship was suspended. This is not correct. Public worship is the worship rendered to God by the whole Mystical Body, Head and members, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: “Indeed, for the accomplishment of this great work by which God is perfectly glorified and men sanctified, Christ always associates with the Church, his beloved Bride, who invokes her as his Lord and who passes through him to render his worship to the Eternal Father.
The liturgy is therefore rightly regarded as the exercise of the priestly function of Jesus Christ, an exercise in which the sanctification of man is signified by sensitive signs, is carried out in a manner specific to each person. ‘them, and in which the integral public worship is exercised by the mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is to say by the Head and by its members. Consequently, any liturgical celebration, as a work of Christ the priest and of his Body which is the Church, is the sacred action par excellence of which no other action of the Church can achieve effectiveness in the same way and to the same degree ”(Sacrosanctum Concilium 7). This worship is rendered to God whenever it is offered in the name of the Church by legitimately deputies and according to acts approved by the authority of the Church (Code of Canon Law, c 834).
Thus, each time a priest celebrates the mass or the liturgy of the hours, even if he is alone, he offers public and official worship of the Church in union with its Head, Christ and on behalf of the whole Body . It is necessary to recall this truth to begin. It will allow us to better dissipate certain errors.
Of course, to find its full and manifest expression, it is fortunate that this worship can be celebrated with the participation of a community of the faithful of the people of God. But it may happen that this is not possible. The physical absence of the community does not prevent the realization of public worship even if it cuts off part of its realization.
Thus, it would be wrong to pretend that a priest should abstain from the celebration of Mass in the absence of the faithful. On the contrary, in the present circumstances where the people of God are prevented from uniting sacramentally with this worship, the priest is more bound to the daily celebration. Indeed, in the liturgy, the priest acts in personna Ecclesiae, in the name of the whole Church and in personna Christi, in the name of Christ, Head of the body to worship the Father very good, he is the ambassador, the delegate of all those who cannot be there.
It is therefore understandable that no secular authority can suspend the public worship of the Church. This worship is a spiritual reality over which temporal authority has no control. This worship continues wherever a mass is celebrated, even without the assistance of the people gathered. It is up to this civil authority, on the other hand, to ban gatherings that would be dangerous for the common good in view of the health situation. It is also the responsibility of the bishops to collaborate with these civil authorities in the most perfect frankness.
It was therefore probably legitimate to ask Christians to refrain, for a short and limited time, from gathering. On the other hand, it is unacceptable for the authorities responsible for political good to allow themselves to judge the urgent or non-urgent nature of religious worship and prohibit the opening of churches, which would allow the faithful to pray and to confess and to communicate, as long as the sanitary rules are respected.
As “promoters and guardians of all liturgical life”, it is up to the bishops to firmly and without delay demand the right to gatherings as soon as they become reasonably possible. In this matter, the example of Saint Charles Borromeo can enlighten us. During the plague of Milan, he applied in the processions the strict sanitary measures recommended by the civil authority of his time which resembled the barrier measures of our time. The Christian faithful also have the right and the duty to defend firmly and without compromising their freedom of worship.
A secularized mentality considers religious acts as secondary activities serving the well-being of people, like leisure and cultural activities. This perspective is radically false. Praise and worship are objectively due to God. We owe him this worship because he is our Creator and our Savior. Public expression of Catholic worship is not a concession by the state to the subjectivity of believers. It is an objective right of God. It is an inalienable right of each person. “The duty to render authentic worship to God concerns man individually and socially. “(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2105) This is” the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ “, recalls the council Vatican II, (Dignitatis Humanae, 1).
I would therefore like to pay tribute to the priests and men and women religious who ensured the continuity of public Catholic worship in the countries most affected by the pandemic. By celebrating in solitude you prayed in the name of the whole Church, you were the voice of all Christians ascending to the Father. I also want to thank all the lay faithful who took it to heart to associate themselves with this public worship by celebrating the liturgy of the hours in their homes or by joining spiritually in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of Mass.
Some have criticized the retransmission of these liturgies by means of communication such as television or the Internet. There is no doubt that, as Pope Francis reminded us, the virtual image does not replace physical presence. Jesus came to touch us in our flesh. The sacraments extend his presence to us. It must be remembered that the logic of the Incarnation, and therefore of the sacraments, cannot do without physical presence. No virtual retransmission will ever replace the sacramental presence. In the long run, it could even be harmful to the spiritual health of the priest who, instead of turning his gaze to God, looks and speaks to an idol: to a camera, turning away from God who loved us to the point of delivering his only Son on the cross so that we may have life.
However, I want to thank everyone who worked on these broadcasts. They have enabled many Christians to join spiritually in the uninterrupted public worship of the Church. In this they have been useful and fruitful. They also helped many people in search of finding support for their prayer. I want to pay tribute to the inventiveness and the imagination of Christians who had to deploy urgently.
However, I want to draw everyone’s attention to certain risks. The means of virtual retransmission could induce a logic of seeking success, image, spectacle or pure emotion. This logic is not that of Christian worship. The cult does not aim to hook spectators through a camera. It is directed and oriented towards the Triune God. To avoid this risk, this transformation of Christian worship into a spectacle, it is important to reflect on what God is telling us through the current situation.
The Christian people found themselves in the situation of the Hebrew people in exile, deprived of worship. The prophet Ezekiel teaches us the spiritual meaning of this suspension of Hebrew worship. We need to reread this Old Testament book whose words are very topical. The chosen people did not know how to offer a truly spiritual worship to God, affirms the prophet. He turned to idols. “His priests violated my law and desecrated my sanctuaries; between the sacred and the profane, they did not make a difference and they did not teach to distinguish the impure and the pure, … and I was dishonored among them “(Ez 22,26). Then the glory of God deserted the temple of Jerusalem (Ez 10:18).
But God does not take revenge. If he lets natural disasters happen to his people, it is always to better educate them and offer them a deeper grace of alliance. (Ez 33, 11) During the exile, Ezekiel teaches the people the methods of a more perfect worship, of a more true worship. (Ez chap 40 to 47). The prophet suggests a new temple from which flows a river of living water (Ez 47: 1). This temple symbolizes, foreshadows and announces the pierced Heart of Jesus, the true temple. This temple is served by priests who will have no inheritance in Israel, no land in private property. “You will not give them heritage in Israel, I will be their heritage” (Ez 44:28), says the Lord.
I believe we can apply these words of Ezekiel to our time. We also did not differentiate between the sacred and the profane.
We have often looked down on the sanctity of our churches. We have transformed them into concert halls, restaurants or dormitories for the poor, refugees or undocumented migrants. Saint Peter’s Basilica and almost all of our cathedrals, living expressions of the faith of our ancestors, have become great museums, trampled under foot and desecrated, before our eyes, by a lamentable parade of tourists, often unbelievers and disrespectful of holy places and of the Holy Temple of the living God. Today, through an illness that he did not positively want, God offers us the grace to feel how much we miss our churches. God offers us the grace to experience that we need this house where he resides in the middle of our towns and villages. We need a place, a sacred building, that is to say reserved exclusively for God. We need a place that is more than just a functional space for gathering and cultural entertainment. A church is a place where everything is oriented towards the glory of God, the worship of his majesty. Is it not time, by re-reading the book of Ezekiel, to regain the sense of sacredness? To ban secular demonstrations in our churches? To reserve access to the altar only to ministers of religion? To banish the cries, the applause, the worldly conversations, the frenzy of the photographs of this place where God comes to live? “The church is not a room in which early in the morning something takes place once, while it would remain empty and” without function “for the rest of the day. In the room that is the church, there is always the Church since the Lord always gives himself, since the Eucharistic mystery remains and since in advancing towards this mystery, we are always included in the divine worship of all ‘Believing, prayerful and loving Church. We all know the difference between a church filled with prayers and a church that has become a museum. Today, we run the great danger that our churches will become museums. (Joseph Ratzinger, Eucharistie. Mitte der Kirche, Munich, 1978).
We could repeat the same words about Sunday, the Lord’s day, the sanctuary of the week. Didn’t we desecrate it by making it a day of work, a day of pure mundane entertainment? He is sorely missed today. The days follow one another similar to each other.
We must hear the word of the prophet who blames us for “violating the sanctuary.” We must allow ourselves to relearn worship in spirit and in truth. Many priests discovered the celebration without the presence of the people. They thus experienced that the liturgy is primarily and above all “the worship of the divine majesty”, in the words of Vatican II (SC 33). It is not primarily a teaching or missionary exercise. Or rather, it becomes truly missionary only to the extent that it is entirely ordered to “the perfect glorification of God” (SC 5).
By celebrating alone, the priests no longer had the Christian people in front of them, they then realized that the celebration of the Mass is still addressed to the Triune God. They turned their gaze to the East. Because “it is from the East that atonement comes. This is where the man named Orient came from, who became a mediator between God and men. By this, you are therefore invited to always look towards the East, where the Sun of Justice rises for you, where the light always appears for you, “says Origen in a homily on Leviticus. Mass is not a long speech addressed to the people but a praise and a supplication addressed to God.
The contemporary Western mentality, shaped by technique and fascinated by the media, has sometimes wanted to make the liturgy an effective and profitable educational work. In this spirit, we have sought to make the celebrations friendly and attractive. Liturgical actors, motivated by pastoral motivations, sometimes wanted to do educational work by introducing profane or spectacular elements into the celebrations. Have we not seen testimonies, staging and other applause flourish? We thus believe to favor the participation of the faithful, we in fact reduce the liturgy to a human game. There is a real risk of leaving no place for God in our celebrations. We run the temptation of the Hebrews in the desert. They sought to create a cult to their measure and to their human height, let us not forget that they ended prostrate before the idol of the golden calf which they had made themselves!
We must beware: the multiplication of masses filmed could accentuate this logic of spectacle, this search for human emotions. Pope Francis strongly urged the priests not to become men of spectacle, showmasters. God was incarnated so that the world could have life: God did not come into our flesh for the pleasure of impressing us or putting on a show, but rather to share with us the fullness of his life. Jesus, who is the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16) and to whom the Father has given to possess life in himself (Jn 5:26) did not come only to appease his Father’s wrath or write off any debt. He came to have life and to have it in abundance. And he gives us this fullness of life by dying on the cross. This is why at the moment when the priest, in a true identification with Christ and with humility, celebrates Holy Mass, he must be able to say: “I am crucified with Christ. I live, but it is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me “(Ga 2, 19-20). He must disappear behind Jesus Christ and let Christ be in direct contact with the Christian people. The priest must therefore become an instrument which lets Christ shine through. He does not have to seek the sympathy of the assembly by facing him as his main interlocutor. Entering the spirit of the Council supposes on the contrary to step aside, to give up being the focal point. Everyone’s attention must turn to Christ, to the cross, the true center of all Christian worship. It is about letting Christ take us and associate us with his sacrifice. The participation in liturgical worship must be understood as a grace from Christ “who joins the Church” (SC 7). It is he who has initiative and primacy. “The Church invokes him as his Lord and always goes through him to worship the Eternal Father” (SC 7).
Likewise, care should be taken with the logic of efficiency generated by the use of the Internet. It is customary to judge publications by the number of “views” they generate. This induces the search for the unexpected, emotion, surprise, “buzz”.
Liturgical worship is foreign to this scale of values. The liturgy really puts us in the presence of divine Transcendence. Truly participating in it means renewing in us this “stupor” that Saint John Paul II held in high esteem (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 6). This sacred stupor, this joyful fear, requires our silence before divine majesty. We often forget that sacred silence is one of the means that the Council indicates to encourage participation. The participatio actuosa in the work of Christ therefore supposes leaving the secular world to enter “sacred action par excellence” (SC 7). We sometimes pretend, with a certain arrogance, to stay in the human being to enter the divine. On the contrary, we have experienced in recent weeks that in order to find God, it was useful to leave our homes and go to his home, in his sacred abode: the church.
The liturgy is a fundamentally mystical and contemplative reality, and therefore beyond the reach of our human action, so the participation in its mystery is a grace from God.
Finally, I would like to emphasize the sacred reality among all: the Holy Eucharist. The loss of communion has been a deep suffering for many of the faithful. I know it and I want to tell them my deep compassion. Their suffering is proportional to their desire. We believe it: God will not leave this desire for him unfulfilled. It should also be remembered that no priest should feel prevented from confessing and giving communion to the faithful in the church or in private homes, with the required health precautions. But the situation of Eucharistic famine can lead us to a salutary awareness. Have we not forgotten the sanctity of the Eucharist? We hear stories of breathtaking sacrilege: priests who wrap consecrated hosts in plastic or paper bags, to allow the faithful to freely use the consecrated hosts and take them home, or even others who distribute Holy Communion observing the correct distance and using, for example, tweezers to avoid contagion. How far we are from Jesus who approached the lepers and, stretching out his hands, touched them to heal them, or from Father Damien who devoted his life to the lepers of Molokai (Hawaii). This way of treating Jesus as a worthless object is a desecration of the Eucharist. Have we not often considered it our property? So many times we have communicated through habit and routine, without preparation or thanksgiving. Communion is not a right, it is a free grace that God offers us. This time reminds us that we should tremble with gratitude and fall on our knees before Holy Communion. Here I would like to recall the words of Benedict XVI: “We have, in the recent past, perceived a certain misunderstanding on the authentic message of the Holy Scripture. The newness of Christian worship has been influenced by a certain secularized mentality of the sixties and seventies, of the last century. It is true, and it still remains valid, that the center of worship is no longer in ancient rites and sacrifices but in Christ himself, in his person, in his life, in his paschal mystery. And yet, one should not deduce from this fundamental novelty that the sacred no longer exists, but that it has found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, divine love incarnate. (…) He did not abolish the sacred, but he carried it to its fulfillment, by inaugurating a new worship, which is fully spiritual, but which, however, as long as we are on the way in time, still uses it signs and rites, which will disappear only at the end, in the heavenly Jerusalem, where there will be no more temple (cf. Rev 21,22). Thanks to Christ, the sacredness is truer, more intense, and, as happens with the commandments, also more demanding! (Corpus Domini, June 7, 2012).
As for us priests, have we always been aware of being set apart, consecrated to be servants, ministers of the worship of the Most High God? As the prophet Ezekiel affirms, do we live without having on this earth any heritage other than God himself? On the contrary, very often we have been worldly. We asked for popularity, success according to the criteria of the world. We too have profaned the sanctuary of the Lord. Among us, some have even gone so far as to profane this sacred temple of the presence of God: the heart and the body of the weakest, of children. We too must ask for forgiveness, do penance and repair.
A society that loses the sense of the sacred runs the risk of regressing to barbarism. The sense of greatness of God is the heart of all civilization. Indeed, if every man deserves respect, it is basically because he is created in the image and likeness of God. The dignity of man is an echo of the transcendence of God. If we no longer tremble with joyful and reverential fear before the divine majesty, how will we recognize in each person a mystery worthy of respect? If we no longer want to kneel humbly and as a sign of filial love before God, how would we be able to kneel before the eminent dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God? If we no longer accept to kneel respectfully and in adoration before the most humble, weakest and most insignificant, but most real and most living presence that is the Holy Eucharist, how would we hesitate to kill the unborn child, the weakest, the most fragile, and to legalize abortion, which is a horrible and barbaric crime? Because now we know the truth, thanks to the progress of fundamental genetics, which has just established it scientifically in a definitive and irrefutable way: the human fetus has been from the moment of its conception a fully human being. If we lose the sense of worshiping God, human relationships will be colored with vulgarity and aggressiveness. The more deference we have to God in our churches, the more we will be sensitive and courteous to our brothers in the rest of our lives.
The pastors must therefore, as soon as the sanitary conditions allow, offer the Christian people the opportunity to worship together and solemnly the divine majesty in the Blessed Sacrament. Pope Francis recently gave us the example of this in St. Peter’s Square. It will be necessary to praise, to give thanks through public processions. It will be an opportunity for the whole people to become one body and experience that the Christian community is born from the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice. I encourage, as soon as possible, manifestations of popular piety such as the worship of the relics of the patron saints of the cities. It is necessary for the people of God to ritually and publicly manifest their faith. Benedict XVI said: “the sacred has an educational function and its disappearance inevitably impoverishes culture, in particular the training of new generations. If, for example, in the name of a secularized faith which no longer needs sacred signs, we abolished the Corpus Domini procession in the city, the spiritual profile of Rome would be “flattened” and our personal and community conscience in would remain weakened. Or, we think of a mom and a dad who, in the name of desacralized faith, would deprive their children of any religious ritual: they would actually end up leaving the field open to so many substitutes present in the consumer society, other rites and other signs, which could more easily become idols. God our Father has not done this with humanity ”(Corpus Domini, 2012).
These demonstrations will be an opportunity to emphasize the value of supplication, intercession, reparation for offenses against God and propitiation for Christian worship. It would be a good thing, where possible, for the processions of supplications including the litanies of the Saints to be given again. Finally, I would like to insist on prayer for the deceased. In many countries, the deceased had to be buried without proper funerals being celebrated. We must repair this injustice. In addition, I would like to deplore some recent practices here, which favor the development of new ways of disposing of mortal remains, including alkaline hydrolysis, where the body of the deceased is placed in a metal cylinder and dissolved in a chemical bath which does not only a few bone fragments remain, similar to those resulting from incineration. The effluents are then discharged into the sewers. The alkaline hydrolysis process does not show respect for the dignity of the human body which corresponds to that proclaimed by the law of the Church. But even if we do not have faith, it is absolutely inhuman, cruel and disrespectful to treat people we love and have loved us so dearly. “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If someone destroys the temple of God, that one God destroys it. For the temple of God is sacred, and this temple is you ”(1 Cor 3, 16-17; 6, 19). By filial piety, we must surround all the deceased with an ardent prayer of intercession for the salvation of their souls. I encourage pastors to celebrate solemn masses for the deceased. It is fortunate in these cases that, according to the customs of each place, the mass is followed by an absolution celebrated in the presence of a symbolic representation of the deceased (Tumulum, catafalque), and a procession towards the cemetery with blessing of tombs. Thus the Church, like a true mother, will take care of all her living and deceased children and present to God in the name of all a worship service, thanksgiving, propitiation and intercession.
- In fact, “the Tradition received from the Apostles includes everything that contributes to lead the life of the people of God in a holy way and to increase their faith; thus the Church perpetuates in its doctrine, its life and its worship, and it transmits to each generation all that it is itself and all that it believes ”, says Vatican Council II (Dei Verbum, 8) . Divine worship is the great treasure of the Church. She cannot keep it hidden, she invites all men to it because she knows that in him “is gathered all human prayer, all human desire, all true human devotion, the true search for God, which is found finally realized in Christ. “(Benedict XVI, meeting with the clergy of Rome, March 2, 2010). I reiterate my deep compassion to all in these times of trial. I renew my fraternal encouragement to the priests who devote themselves body and soul and suffer from not being able to do more for their flock. Together we realize that the communion of saints is not an empty word. Together, soon, we will once again render in the eyes of all, the worship which returns to God and which makes us his people.