The phrase ‘missing Mass’ used to refer to non-attendance at Sunday Mass and was a serious omission for any Catholic. If it was habitual it could lead to a call from the local priest. Today that would be represented as clerical policing rather than an act of pastoral outreach. In fact, in a homogeneous religious community, Sunday absenteeism could betoken many things and lapse of faith would not necessarily be the first thing in anyone’s mind. A person might become alienated for a number of personal and social reasons and a priest might well see outreach to such an individual as pastoral duty.
We are a long way from the Church of the early and mid-twentieth century. In a 21st century pandemic attendance at Mass is not possible and ‘missing Mass’, has a very different meaning now. Most of our churches are closed even for private visitation. The significant compensation is that modern technology has opened them up to us in the virtual reality of our laptops and phones. For now, as our parish priest reminds us, our homes have become our churches. We are indeed Church wherever we gather together, in the Lord’s name. We can be as Pope Francis said ‘in communion’, not just with those beside us physically but with the entire tuned in congregation. That is how it is in an even more radical way with every Mass anyway. We are a Eucharistic community, that is united with the faithful of every age and place when we come together to celebrate and share in Christ’s great, once and forever saving act.
So what are we missing then? Pope Francis has said that while we are ‘in communion’, we are not ‘together’. Something so big is missing that he concludes, ‘this is not the church’. What is missing might be described as the concrete, the tactile, the intimate. In the words of the Pope,’the church, the sacraments and the people of God are concrete’, not something that is ‘only experienced or distributed online’.
In his Easter homily, Bishop Robert Barron, emphasized the concrete reality on which our Christian faith is based. The resurrection of Christ ‘happened’, ‘actually happened’. That is the first and most important thing to be said about it. It is not to be understood as myth nor allegory. It is actual, not virtual.The scriptural accounts speak of specific times and places, of concrete, physical details, of the wounds into which Thomas places his hands, of breakfast over a charcoal fire, of a gathering around a table for an evening meal, of pounding hearts and most of all perhaps of the raw physical courage it took to bring that story to the world. Nobody puts their life on the line for a myth, however great.
Virtual reality works for many tasks but is a poor substitute for living, breathing reality. It is easy to see that at this time. On the first excited skype call to grandchildren whom we normally don’t skype because they live relatively close, the youngest came so close to the laptop that our screen was filled with cherubic, wide-eyed innocence as small, dark eyes wandered from the familiar faces of grandparents to a familiar room with familiar objects. It brought out in the simple,uncomplicated way of childhood that the concrete matters. The real presence of things, touch, sight, smell, movement and their interplay. Without that, reality is reduced to a plane, a surface in every sense. Something indicated but not present. When that much loved, little face filled our screens, totally unaware that our eyes were as intently on him as his were on us, it was absence, not presence, we felt.
As lockdown continues, the efforts of priests to draw their scattered congregations more fully into our liturgy shows amazing effort and flair. An English vicar seems to have started a trend by putting photos of his parishioners along the empty pews. To connect lilturgy to mission, a parish priest in London opens his church for a hour every evening to receive food parcels for a local charity. A priest in a Kent parish announced that the choir and readers would be ‘returning’ for Easter. Virtually returning of course, by means of an app.called Zoom. In our local parish, at the conclusion of Easter Masses, our PP invited us to stand and join in the singing of the Alleluia Chorus, to a recording by a local choir. It was a moment when the virtual seemed to slip into the actual. It also showed how appropriately chosen, good liturgical music can create an environment for worship probably more than anything else can. Sacred words set to the music they inspired which in the words of Pope Francis, ‘point to the beauty of Paradise’.
Trying to make it ‘real’ is also something that occupies the lay faithful at home by their screens. A columnist in an English magazine wrote about making the effort to dress up for Easter service. Putting aside the slouchy leisurewear of lockdown and donning a ‘floral Spring dress’ helped her to enter more fully into her local church’s celebration of Easter. Even though she was alone, ‘God would see’ the effort she made. The same writer noted that the quiet moments by her screen as she waited for the service to commence helped her to recollect and direct her thoughts to prayer. Something that is often missing, she said, from actual services where ‘cafe loud conversation’ continues until the service starts. Our effort to ‘real up’ has been the lighting of a candle next to the laptop before we tune into churchservices.tv.
Pope Francis said being ‘in communion’ in this way is not enough. We must be both ‘in communion’ and ‘together’, fully present in both body and spirit. To enter into the sacramental presence of the Lord among us requires that we, communally and personally, are present to Him as he is to us. Our sacraments and liturgies in their very concreteness of sign and ritual require it. Being there in person, wearing the appropriate garment in the spiritual sense, goes beyond ‘the floral Spring dress’ but the instinct to wear that dress captures the idea.
Our Catholic churches in themselves are places of divine presence even when no public prayer is taking place. They are not just places of assembly. This makes them different from the churches and meeting halls of other denominations. Like the orthodox churches of the East, they generally are open all day every day unless there are security issues. Orthodox churches don’t reserve the Eucharist but the faithful come to venerate sacred icons and light candles. Our locked churches still hold the blessed sacrament, the candle shrines, the holy water fonts, the Stations of the Cross and of course the sanctuary light. A table set for private devotion but for now no guests.
Unlike supermarkets, off licences and up to recently, hardware stores, access to our well frequented Catholic churches for private prayer or reflection is not considered essential or is deemed to be hazardous in a way that negotiating a supermarket aisle is not.
It is true that times such as this would be likely to increase church visitation and not just for the regular faithful. The doors of our churches are not just open for the religiously observant but for all. Their openess symbolises the universal call to salvation. And it is, as Pope Francis said in his Easter address, when we know we need salvation we are at the place where faith begins. Far more people outside the faith community seek out peace and presence in our churches than we might think. The English writer Douglas Murray, ‘an atheist Christian’ who was never a Catholic said , ‘if the Church is open, I will sit in it,’ when describing his covid19 daily routine before the churches went into full lockdown in the UK.
Public health concerns rightly limit our freedoms at this critical time. Is it ‘essential’ that our churches remain open even for part of the day? Is it essential that off licences remain open? It is probably simpler to say that it is important to people that they have access to both.
Spiritual deprivation has often been the lot of Christians. We can look forward to the return of our liturgies and the re-opening of our churches. For millions of persecuted Christians around the world, there are no churches for them to return to. They have already lost so much; the pandemic has little more to take.