Faith Crisis Amid Health Crisis: Catholics Need the Mass to Return
COMMENTARY: The faithful require — and deserve — something more tangible than the online Mass.
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, the death toll in the United States is closing in on 500,000. Yet the loss of life is not restricted to those who’ve succumbed to the disease.
Because of bans and limits on in-person worship, tens of millions of American Catholics have been cut off from the source and summit of the Christian life — Holy Communion, when we receive the Eucharist at Mass. The result is a faith crisis no less serious than the health crisis of the pandemic.
To non-Catholics, this statement may seem beyond the pale. What’s the big deal about skipping Sunday service, especially since Mass is available online? The answer is: It’s the biggest deal imaginable.
The most important part of Mass isn’t simply that it happens. It’s that Catholics are invited to participate in the sacrifice of the altar, when they consume the Eucharist — the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is so important that Jesus himself commanded us to do it, saying, “Do this in memory of me.”
When Catholics receive Holy Communion, we are literally joined with our Lord and Savior, as if we are there with him at Golgotha, on Good Friday. The angels and saints surround us as we become filled with the grace to lead lives worthy of Christ.
But when we can’t receive the Eucharist, none of that happens. We miss the thing we need the most — God’s grace. Online Mass isn’t just inherently different; it’s inherently inferior.
Imagine being at a feast of epic proportions. You watch the setting of the table and the laying out of food. You see the pouring of wine into goblets. It’s a wonderful sight, made all the more wonderful by the hope of sitting down and joining in the moment the feast is ready. Yet at that moment, your way is blocked. The feast is there, right before your eyes, but that’s as close as you’ll ever get. You aren’t just hungry, you’re saddened by the loss of something you love.
This is the situation in which Catholics find themselves today: Our hunger for the Bread of Life cannot be sated. Our sadness is overwhelming.
Most of us have spent our entire lives going to Mass every Sunday, driven not only by our obligation as Catholics, but, more importantly, by our desire to unite ourselves with Christ. The desire is still there, but the door is too often shut.
I’ve spoken with many bishops about this terrible situation. They know online Mass is a pale comparison to the real thing. No one wants the return of in-person worship more than them. But they’ve been put between a rock and a hard place. Aggressive secular authorities have forced church closures or severe limits on attendance from coast to coast. The bishops have made the best of a bad situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that pandemic restrictions are standing in the way of spiritual nourishment for the faithful.
In California, where I live, indoor worship was banned until this month, and indoor attendance is still extremely limited. That means as many as 10 million Catholics are missing out on the celebration of the Mass. States like New York, where I often travel for work, have also put draconian limits on church attendance — more than 7 million Catholics have been affected there. While some have still found a way to receive Communion, most have not.
Every person who has been cut off from the Eucharist is losing a source of grace they desperately need. Children are losing faith formation during the most impressionable years of their lives. Adults are losing a source of comfort and joy in a terribly difficult time.
Is it any wonder that amidst pandemic shutdowns and worship limitations, more and more people are falling away from the Church? The Eucharist helps us stay on the straight and narrow, and when we can’t receive it, our paths will surely wander.
More than one-third of young Catholics already say they’ll attend Mass less often once the pandemic ends. It’s possible pews across the U.S. will be empty before too long. That would be disastrous for the Church and for the country. Most of all, it would be disastrous for the souls of millions of people. They need the freedom to stand or kneel before the altar and receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
The barriers that block Holy Communion across the nation have already done enough damage. They must now be broken down for the sake of the faithful. We don’t just need to protect our lives amid the pandemic. We need the source of life itself — now.