If this pandemic will change our society, then it will certainly change our church. As more stringent measures are put in place to keep people apart, people of faith have had to begin to reimagine what church is. If the Catholic Church abuse crisis did anything, it was a staunch reminder that the church is not the hierarchy or the institution or a building. It is the People of God. Now, more than ever, the People of God are being reminded of this. Yet many, understandably, are clinging to the church that we’ve come to know. Churches and dioceses have begun to live-stream Masses and religious services, even offering drive-thru confessions (though that’s reducing). I’ll be honest, watching Mass online doesn’t really do much for me. It’s not the same. I’ve heard many others voice the same thing, and so they don’t watch Mass online. Instead, they are finding other ways of connecting with God and maintaining a community of faith, developing a stronger sense of the domestic church. I, for example, have felt more a part of a worshipping global community streaming a weekly Sunday Evensong with music, scripture, and prayer.
This new time of attempting to be and engage with church is strange. For many of us, it will begin raising questions about what is essential to our own lived faith. Clergy are not deemed “essential” by civil authorities, which dioceses have affirmed for the sake of public health, and I imagine priests are wondering about their own vocational identity.
Entitled to the Sacraments?
There is a letter circulating online that implores bishops to make the sacraments more available during this time of pandemic. It states that sacraments like the Eucharist are essential and that priests should be allowed and encouraged to distribute communion, hold parking lot Masses and confessions, and anoint the sick in hospitals. Some Catholics are livid that restaurants are open for takeaway but the Eucharist is not made available for them. For so long priests have been placed on a pedestal and now with an abundance of streamed Masses yet a lack of access to the sacraments it can be even easier to see priests as just sacramental vending machines. Cheers to the clergy who recognise that they have more to offer than just the sacraments or Masses: those who are calling parishioners to check in or offering spiritual direction or video recording spiritual reflections or leading virtual prayer. An editorial in Our Sunday Visitor objected to the letter to the bishops for a number of good reasons, partly for the health of the public and for the health of the aged presbyterate (a loss of which would be a real concern for the future of the hierarchical church). But it highlights something else for me which I think is just as important to consider.
There is this movement in some Catholic circles that we are entitled to receive the Eucharist, and that risking public health is worth this “right”. OSV reminds us that the sacraments are gifts from God and that gifts “are given on the giver’s terms.” While I understand that people get great comfort from receiving the sacraments, an importunate insistence on one’s “right” to receive them seems to come from a privileged, Western abundance mentality. Just as we have gotten so used to access to myriad choices of food and other consumer goods, we have been spoilt by easy access to the sacraments. Many people in other parts of the world do not have access to priests more than once or twice a year and can only receive the Eucharist as often as clergy visit. Perhaps this sacrifice can put us in solidarity with those folks who experience daily scarcity far more than abundance.
This entitlement to the sacraments also reveals what I call a kind of “sacramental idolatry”, where the sacraments oddly trump God. The sacrament becomes the end, rather than the means to God. We’re living in a Magnificat moment, where “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.” The priests who we’ve so relied upon for these sacraments cannot “do” what we’ve put them on a pedestal to do. Now we’re separated from them and we finally need to take ownership of our own priesthood and membership in the Body of Christ. I don’t mean to downplay the role of priests (I was on that path once) but we’ve made them into mere functionaries.
God is not bound by the sacraments. This time is a new challenge to encounter God in new ways, to truly find God in all things. The present situation where church is closed, Mass is online, and sacraments are inaccessible, highlights the sacramentality in other parts of our life—other ways we access God and other ways God reaches out to us: through family bonding time, Zoom meetings, time for prayer, and walks in our neighbourhood. On retreats, I’ve given a meditation on freedom that invites you to imagine the institutional church essentially closing up shop. The number of priests declines, church attendance grows smaller, dioceses merge, and eventually there are no more sacraments—at least not accessible to most people. How does this feel? St. Ignatius said that if the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was ordered to shut down he would need just fifteen minutes in prayer in the chapel and he would be on his way. True freedom.
The Emerging Church
Now I don’t think the church will disappear entirely, but it will look very different. Perhaps it will look more like the movement Jesus began, which followed soon with intimate house churches and Eucharist shared around the common table — something some of us are doing on our own because of quarantine. Brian McLaren says that the future of Christianity will look less institutional and more decentralised and diverse.
It will not be anti-institutional because institutions are necessary for human survival, but neither will it be institutional, in the sense that it is preoccupied with its own survival or bringing benefits only to its members. Rather, it will be trans-institutional, working across institutions, both religious and non-religious, seeking the common good of those inside and outside the movement and the institutions it involves.
(Brian McLaren, “Three Christianities” in “The Future of Christianity” in Oneing, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2019)
The Church and its people will be waking up to what is essential for church to be church, which rituals and externals are of value and which distract from God. Some are discovering that the Mass was perhaps not as central to their faith as they thought, and they’re doing just fine spiritually without it. Some have uncovered a deep longing for it. Still some appreciated the Mass more for the community of faith it brought together. God knows I’ve had ecstatic and mediocre experiences of Mass. I’ve sometimes felt more communion with God walking with my spouse in our neighbourhood or singing evening prayer with people around the world than when I was at church. I’ve also experienced more healing in spiritual direction than in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I know the sacraments are a real encounter with God, but I also know that God is not confined to them.
I hope when all this is over people come back to church and rejoice at the reunion, sing joyfully, pray with the scriptures more, and take time to get to know their fellow sisters and brothers. I hope they come back, but I hope they’re transfigured. I hope there is a new spiritual freedom and energy that springs up. Hopefully we come forth from this allowing what needs to die to die, allowing what needs to emerge to emerge. If the church as we know it someday appears to die, I know God will still be here, still be active. Resurrection is promised, but the resurrected body always looks different. And the Church in its truest sense will always be here because we will always be God’s people.
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