On Christmas Eve in the year 1252, Mass was being celebrated in the recently constructed Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. One important guest was unable to attend due to illness…St. Clare. She was so distraught at being unable to participate that God granted her a miraculous grace: the Mass appeared to her on the wall in her cell. St. Clare was able to see the priest, participate in the Mass and make a spiritual communion. Sound familiar? That is why St. Clare is the patron saint of television.
During these days of social distancing and quarantine, many people have expressed to me their frustration, sadness, and worry about the efficaciousness of “attending” Mass from home and receiving Communion spiritually. So here are a few thoughts to consider…
First, this “new normal” is temporary. Christ gave us the sacraments for us to have tangible encounters with Him and live-streamed sacraments are an exception, not a norm for our faith lives. Sometimes illness, disease, persecution, natural disaster etc., make coming together either imprudent or impossible. However, God can give grace in whatever way He chooses to. He isn’t limited by time, space or substance. While being physically present for the sacraments is the normative way that God has given us to practice our faith lives, it doesn’t mean He no longer bestows grace to those who seek it in times like these. We just need to make ourselves as well disposed as possible to receive it.
How do we accomplish this? The key is still to participate, not just watch, Mass. “Sacrosanctum Concilium” states that: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Peter 2:9; 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism” (14).
During quarantine, lots of people have been making reference to the movie Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s character is doomed to repeat the same day again and again. As we develop new in-home routines, our days can start to blend together and we can feel a lot like that character. So the question becomes in quarantine, how does Sunday look different than every other day at home? What do we do to make “The Lord’s Day” different than every other day? What sort of prayer space, prayer time are we setting up? And how does participating in a live-streamed Mass become full, conscious, and active, instead of just another show? If we treat a live-streamed Mass like any other show we just watch, it really will be difficult to experience a deeper sense of God’s grace. Preparing for and participating in a live-streamed liturgy as much as we can helps us to prepare to receive spiritual communion. St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical “A Eucharistic Church,” “that it is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist. This was the origin of the practice of “spiritual communion”, which has happily been established in the Church for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Jesus wrote: ‘When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you’” (34).
St. John Paul II states that communion doesn’t begin with Mass, but rather, the Mass expresses a communion that “it presupposes…already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection” (“A Eucharistic Church: 35). Ah! So during this time we have an unique opportunity to work on the sanctuary of our hearts, minds and souls! The first place where God truly lives! We are invited to examine how we foster communion with God, our families, and others during the week before we “tune in” to Mass. Looking again to the Church’s document on the liturgy we read; “The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy. The Christian is indeed called to pray with his brethren, but he must also enter into his chamber to pray to the Father, in secret; yet more, according to the teaching of the apostle, he should pray without ceasing.” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium” 12).
Don’t get me wrong. As I stated at the beginning, God knows that we are a psychosomatic people who like see, taste, touch, smell and hear things. That is why God gave us the liturgy. But He also looks for us to be a people who worship Him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4). As we participate in the live-streamed liturgies (which are valid) and make spiritual communion (which the saints including Theresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas, and John Paul II all speak about), our prayer lives can actually become stronger, our Eucharistic devotion deeper, and our love for one another more sincere. It’s just a matter of opening ourselves to it.
I’ll end with an image that someone sent me in an email. It depicted a meme of the Devil smiling at God and saying, “I have closed every one of your churches with this virus,” to which God replies, “no, I have opened up a church in every home.” I pray that this is the lasting mark left on us as a people of faith during these unique times.