“Never before has the Church experienced thus the power of the communion of saints, raising to her Crucified and Risen Lord her vows and prayers, especially the Sacrifice of Holy Mass, celebrated daily, even without the presence of the people, by priests.”
– Cardinal Piacenza, Note from the Apostolic Penitentiary
On Thursday evening, the solemnity of Saint Joseph, I visited the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Motherwell, Scotland, to take part in the final public Mass in the Diocese, at least for now.
Offered in honour of Saint Joseph as the Patron and Guardian of the Universal Church, it was also offered for the sake of all the world, in this present moment of anxiety and deep uncertainty. As of the following morning, the Sacramental and liturgical life of the Church in this Diocese – as in so very many others across the world – changed dramatically, with no Masses being offered publicly. The likelihood is that there will be no public celebration of Holy Week or Easter this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For Catholics, this is an absolutely unprecedented situation – in an entire nation, there are no public Masses being offered. And our access to the Sacramental life of the Church is, likewise, changed dramatically for the foreseeable future.
Looking out across the world and at our current local situation, it is important that we bear a few things in mind.
Firstly, Masses are still being offered every day in our Churches; our Priests and Bishops are still there and they are still praying for us.
The efficacy of the Sacrifice of the Mass is not lessened in any way whatsoever simply because there is no congregation present; at each Mass, although celebrated only by the Priest alone, still Heaven and Earth meet in that moment and the power of that Sacrifice descends upon all the world.
What is important for us as Catholics is that we remember every single day to pray for the entire Church, for our Holy Father the Pope, for the Bishops and for the Priests. In these days, they all carry a great burden on behalf of us all, and they will be called to be very close to so many who will fall ill and die, and to those who will grieve them. And in doing so, many of them will also risk – or give – their own lives. So pray hard for them.
Secondly, remember that the Lord is not constrained in any way at all by human events, no matter their scale or magnitude.
His divine grace is boundless. And His grace is also very creative. While the Sacraments are the normal channels of His grace, they are not the only channels open to Him.
Already, the Holy See has issued a Note from the Apostolic Penitentiary regarding new guidelines for adaptations to the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and which reminds Bishops that the use of General Absolution is permitted in the present situation, under the usual conditions. Amongst other points, the Note reminds the faithful –
“Where the individual faithful find themselves in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution, it should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones (cf. CCC, no. 1452).”
Also, the Apostolic Pentientiary has issued a Decree on the Granting of Special Indulgences during the pandemic. This begins by noting that –
“The gift of special Indulgences is granted to the faithful suffering from COVID-19 disease, commonly known as Coronavirus, as well as to health care workers, family members and all those who in any capacity, including through prayer, care for them.”
In other words, we are able to benefit from this Indulgence even if we are not healthcare workers and are not directly affected (at least for now) by the pandemic. The Decree sets out the conditions under which we can gain the Indulgence by noting –
“This Apostolic Penitentiary also willingly grants a Plenary Indulgence under the same conditions on the occasion of the current world epidemic, also to those faithful who offer a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic adoration, or reading the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief for those who are afflicted and eternal salvation for those whom the Lord has called to Himself.”
And the Church goes even further.
For many, there may be a fear of dying without access to the usual Sacraments, particularly those of Annointing of the Sick and Viaticum. To cover this possibility, the Church decrees as follows –
“The Church prays for those who find themselves unable to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and of the Viaticum, entrusting each and every one to divine Mercy by virtue of the communion of saints and granting the faithful a Plenary Indulgence on the point of death, provided that they are duly disposed and have recited a few prayers during their lifetime (in this case the Church makes up for the three usual conditions required). For the attainment of this indulgence the use of the crucifix or the cross is recommended (cf. Enchiridion indulgentiarum, no.12).”
As well as these formal and official means of communicating grace to the faithful from the Treasury of the Church, I have heard many stories of Priests finding very creative ways to bring the Lord to His people, such as the Canadian parish who installed the Monstrance high in a window of their Church, so that the faithful could come and adore the Lord whilst maintaining all civic guidelines by remaining alone in their cars in the car park. Other churches are offering open air Confession with the required distance between Priest and penitent.
Most Bishops – in Dioceses where there is not a full lockdown – have decreed that their Churches are to remain open for the faithful to come and pray before the Lord in the Tabernacle, with the usual hygiene precautions being followed, of course.
Visiting my parish Church earlier this afternoon, I noted with some joy there were more people present today than there have been on any past Saturday afternoon – indeed, there was a constant stream of parishioners coming to visit the Prisoner of the Tabernacle. It is curious, is it not, that by limiting our access to the Sacraments, our very desire for them – and appreciation of them – increases. Truly, the Lord and His Church are being creative with grace in these days.
Mindful of all of the above, I hear again the words of the Priest at that final Mass on the feast of Saint Joseph at our Cathedral, and I keep them in my heart now and throughout these days – ‘Be not afraid!’.