There is quite a lot of discussion going on in various Facebook groups about what priests can do when the civil authority has forbidden all gatherings of people because of the present epidemic of coronavirus.
Several years ago, I wrote Mass without a congregation to which there are several comments. The Reformation did away with private masses on pretext of superstitious notions of sacramental theology and the purpose of the Eucharist. Orthodox churches cancel the Liturgy if no one turns up on a given day. The priest packs up and goes home. Is this what we are all called to do? Alternatively, is it not good for people unable to go to church to know that Mass is being celebrated for them?
Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien – the best goes against the good. Sometimes, observing laws to the letter demolishes the reason the law was there in the first place. In these circumstances, not celebrating Mass when the people are obliged to stay away is simply closing down the Church. I’m sure the atheists are rubbing their hands with glee! The Church has just shot itself in the foot! At the same time, people who attend church will transmit and catch the virus, and there will be no miracle by God to stop it.
My own thought is the following. Were I to refrain from celebrating Mass because there are no faithful, either because they are not allowed to come or simply are non-believers or faithful of another Church, would there be any positive consequence? If I gave up the priesthood, what good would that do? I have often turned these thoughts over in my mind. Perhaps it’s all a load of bunk like the atheists say… But atheism and materialism are no solution, and deny the reality of consciousness.
I cannot bind the conscience of another priest, but I simply carry on in an attitude of availability for any pastoral need I might encounter. There are times when Mass is impossible, because I am away from home and have no access to all the things needed like the altar, chalice, cruets, missal, etc. There is the Office, which can be prayed by anyone, priests and laity alike. Mass and Office go together, and the Office can stand alone when nothing else is possible. These are the high and visible points of exoteric Christianity.
Esoteric Christianity is our inmost spiritual life and something a person alone can experience. It is approached in so many different ways – as a small community or each person alone. The epidemic has broken up the human community, and many people complain about not being allowed to go for walks on the beach or other things that finish up by bringing humans into close contact and risk of infection. It seems to be a dreadful punishment, but it is teaching us to live the solitary life to the best.
Life has made me a solitary long before the epidemic. My married life has settled to a balance that respects my need for times of solitude and impels me to give to the community and resist the temptation of selfishness. My priesthood and marriage have never been compatible, and this was very painful for many years – and I have very much revised my former opinion against priestly celibacy. However, priestly celibacy can only be based on the integration of the person, otherwise things go wrong like the frustrated person beginning to adopt predatory behaviours.
This epidemic has exposed many deep fissures in the Church. It has not been experienced in our part of the world since the Spanish Flu of 1918-20. Many say that the world will never be the same as now, and we march into the unknown. That is possible. Many of those dispensed from the obligation of attending Mass, or who stay away in a gesture of self-preservation and solidarity with those who would die if infected, will not return to the Church. I am sure that this happened in 1920, as attested by the Journal d’un Curé de Campagne by Bernanos. The world sank into Nazism and Fascism, and World War II came within an inch of destroying civilisation. Amazingly, after 1945, human resilience brought Les Trente Glorieuses and the poem by Kipling I quoted in my previous posting.
What harm can a solitary Mass do? We must carry on until we know that a greater good will come from us finding a new and different vocation from God…