The reality of our times

“In many countries, the practice of Christian worship is disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The faithful cannot meet in the churches, they cannot participate sacramentally in the Eucharistic sacrifice. This situation is a source of great suffering. It is also an opportunity that God gives us to better understand the necessity and the value of liturgical worship. As Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, but above all in deep communion in the humble service of God and His Church, I [Robert, Cardinal Sarah] wish to offer this meditation to my brothers in the episcopate and the priesthood and to the people of God, to try and learn some lessons from this situation.

“It has sometimes been said that, because of the epidemic and the confinement ordered by the civil authorities, public worship was suspended. This is not correct. Public worship is the worship rendered to God by the whole Mystical Body, Head and members, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: “Indeed, for the accomplishment of this great work by which God is perfectly glorified and men sanctified, Christ always associates with the Church, his beloved Bride, who invokes her as his Lord and who passes through him to render his worship to the Eternal Father.” The liturgy is therefore rightly regarded as the exercise of the priestly function of Jesus Christ, an exercise in which the sanctification of man is signified by sensitive signs, is carried out in a manner specific to each person . . . Thus, each time a priest celebrates the mass or the liturgy of the hours, even if he is alone, he offers public and official worship of the Church in union with its Head, Christ and on behalf of the whole Body.

“Of course, to find its full and manifest expression, it is fortunate that this worship can be celebrated with the participation of a community of the faithful of the people of God. But it may happen that this is not possible. The physical absence of the community does not prevent the realization of public worship even if it cuts off part of its realization . . . Thus, it would be wrong to pretend that a priest should abstain from the celebration of Mass in the absence of the faithful. On the contrary, in the present circumstances where the people of God are prevented from uniting sacramentally with this worship, the priest is more bound to the daily celebration. Indeed, in the liturgy, the priest acts in persona Ecclesiae, in the name of the whole Church and in persona Christi, in the name of Christ, Head of the Body to worship the Father; he is the ambassador, the delegate of all those who cannot be there.

“It is therefore understandable that no secular authority can suspend the public worship of the Church. This worship is a spiritual reality over which temporal authority has no control. This worship continues wherever a mass is celebrated, even without the assistance of the people gathered. It is up to this civil authority, on the other hand, to ban gatherings that would be dangerous for the common good in view of the health situation. It is also the responsibility of the bishops to collaborate with these civil authorities in the most perfect frankness.

“It was therefore probably legitimate to ask Christians to refrain, for a short and limited time, from gathering. On the other hand, it is unacceptable for the authorities responsible for political good to allow themselves to judge the urgent or non-urgent nature of religious worship and prohibit the opening of churches, which would allow the faithful to pray and to confess and to communicate, as long as the sanitary rules are respected. As “promoters and guardians of all liturgical life”, it is up to the bishops to firmly and without delay demand the right to gatherings as soon as they become reasonably possible. In this matter, the example of Saint Charles Borromeo can enlighten us. During the plague of Milan, he applied in the processions the strict sanitary measures recommended by the civil authority of his time, which resembled the barrier measures of our time. The Christian faithful also have the right and the duty to defend firmly and without compromising their freedom of worship . . .

“There is no doubt that, as Pope Francis reminded us, the virtual image does not replace physical presence. Jesus came to touch us in our flesh. The sacraments extend His presence to us. It must be remembered that the logic of the Incarnation and, therefore of the sacraments, cannot do without physical presence. No virtual retransmission will ever replace the sacramental presence. In the long run, it could even be harmful to the spiritual health of the priest who, instead of turning his gaze to God, looks and speaks to an idol: to a camera, turning away from God who loved us to the point of delivering His only Son on the Cross so that we may have life. However, I want to thank everyone who worked on these broadcasts. They have enabled many Christians to join spiritually in the uninterrupted public worship of the Church. In this they have been useful and fruitful. They also helped many people in search of finding support for their prayer. I want to pay tribute to the inventiveness and the imagination of Christians who had to deploy urgently. However, I want to draw everyone’s attention to certain risks. The means of virtual retransmission could induce a logic of seeking success, image, spectacle or pure emotion. This logic is not that of Christian worship. The cult does not aim to hook spectators through a camera. It is directed and oriented towards the Triune God. To avoid this risk, this transformation of Christian worship into a spectacle, it is important to reflect on what God is telling us through the current situation.

The Christian people found themselves in the situation of the Hebrew people in exile, deprived of worship. The prophet Ezekiel teaches us the spiritual meaning of this suspension of Hebrew worship. We need to reread this Old Testament book whose words are very topical. The chosen people did not know how to offer a truly spiritual worship to God, affirms the prophet. They turned to idols. “His priests violated My law and desecrated My sanctuaries; between the sacred and the profane, they did not make a difference and they did not teach to distinguish the impure and the pure . . . and I was dishonored among them” (Ez 22,26). Then the glory of God deserted the temple of Jerusalem (Ez 10:18).

But God does not take revenge. If He lets natural disasters happen to His people, it is always to better educate them and offer them a deeper grace of alliance (Ez 33, 11). During the exile, Ezekiel teaches the people the methods of a more perfect worship, of a more true worship. (Ez chap 40 to 47). The prophet suggests a new temple from which flows a river of living water (Ez 47: 1). This temple symbolizes, foreshadows and announces the pierced Heart of Jesus, the true temple. This temple is served by priests who will have no inheritance in Israel, no land in private property. “You will not give them heritage in Israel, I will be their heritage” (Ez 44:28), says the Lord. I believe we can apply these words of Ezekiel to our time. We also did not differentiate between the sacred and the profane.

“We have often looked down on the sanctity of our churches. We have transformed them into concert halls, restaurants or dormitories for the poor, refugees or undocumented migrants. Saint Peter’s Basilica and almost all of our cathedrals, living expressions of the faith of our ancestors, have become great museums, trampled under foot and desecrated, before our eyes, by a lamentable parade of tourists, often unbelievers and disrespectful of holy places and of the Holy Temple of the living God. Today, through an illness that He did not positively want, God offers us the grace to feel how much we miss our churches. God offers us the grace to experience that we need this house where He resides in the middle of our towns and villages. We need a place, a sacred building, that is to say reserved exclusively for God. We need a place that is more than just a functional space for gathering and cultural entertainment. A church is a place where everything is oriented towards the glory of God, the worship of His majesty. Is it not time, by re-reading the book of Ezekiel, to regain the sense of sacredness? To ban secular demonstrations in our churches? To reserve access to the altar only to ministers of religion? To banish the cries, the applause, the worldly conversations, the frenzy of the photographs of this place where God comes to live? The church is not a room in which early in the morning something takes place once, while it would remain empty and” without function “for the rest of the day. In the room that is the church, there is always the Church since the Lord always gives Himself, since the Eucharistic mystery remains and since in advancing towards this mystery, we are always included in the divine worship of all ‘Believing, prayerful and loving Church. We all know the difference between a church filled with prayers and a church that has become a museum. Today, we run the great danger that our churches will become museums. (Joseph Ratzinger, Eucharistie. Mitte der Kirche, Munich, 1978).

“We could repeat the same words about Sunday, the Lord’s day, the sanctuary of the week. Didn’t we desecrate it by making it a day of work, a day of pure mundane entertainment? He is sorely missed today. The days follow one another similar to each other. We must hear the word of the prophet who blames us for “violating the sanctuary.” We must allow ourselves to relearn worship in spirit and in truth . . . The contemporary Western mentality, shaped by technique and fascinated by the media, has sometimes wanted to make the liturgy an effective and profitable educational work. In this spirit, we have sought to make the celebrations friendly and attractive. Liturgical actors, motivated by pastoral motivations, sometimes wanted to do educational work by introducing profane or spectacular elements into the celebrations. Have we not seen testimonies, staging and other applause flourish? We thus believe to favor the participation of the faithful, we in fact reduce the liturgy to a human game. There is a real risk of leaving no place for God in our celebrations. We run the temptation of the Hebrews in the desert. They sought to create a cult to their measure and to their human height, let us not forget that they ended prostrate before the idol of the golden calf which they had made themselves!

“We must beware: the multiplication of masses filmed could accentuate this logic of spectacle, this search for human emotions . . . Likewise, care should be taken with the logic of efficiency generated by the use of the Internet. It is customary to judge publications by the number of “views” they generate. This induces the search for the unexpected, emotion, surprise, “buzz”. Liturgical worship is foreign to this scale of values . . . We often forget that sacred silence is one of the means that the Council indicates to encourage participation. The participatio actuosa in the work of Christ therefore supposes leaving the secular world to enter “sacred action par excellence” (SC 7) . . . The liturgy is a fundamentally mystical and contemplative reality, and therefore beyond the reach of our human action, so the participation in its mystery is a grace from God.

“Finally, I would like to emphasize the sacred reality among all: the Holy Eucharist. The loss of communion has been a deep suffering for many of the faithful. I know it and I want to tell them of my deep compassion. Their suffering is proportional to their desire. We believe it: God will not leave this desire for him unfulfilled. It should also be remembered that no priest should feel prevented from confessing and giving communion to the faithful in the church or in private homes, with the required health precautions. But the situation of Eucharistic famine can lead us to a salutary awareness.

“Have we not forgotten the sanctity of the Eucharist? We hear stories of breathtaking sacrilege: priests who wrap consecrated hosts in plastic or paper bags, to allow the faithful to freely use the consecrated hosts and take them home, or even others who distribute Holy Communion observing the correct distance and using, for example, tweezers to avoid contagion. How far we are from Jesus who approached the lepers and, stretching out His hands, touched them to heal them, or from Father Damien who devoted his life to the lepers of Molokai (Hawaii). This way of treating Jesus as a worthless object is a desecration of the Eucharist.

“Have we not often considered it our property? So many times we have communicated through habit and routine, without preparation or thanksgiving. Communion is not a right, it is a free grace that God offers us. This time reminds us that we should tremble with gratitude and fall on our knees before Holy Communion . . . The pastors must therefore, as soon as the sanitary conditions allow, offer the Christian people the opportunity to worship together and solemnly the divine majesty in the Blessed Sacrament . . . It will be necessary to praise, to give thanks through public processions. It will be an opportunity for the whole people to become one body and experience that the Christian community is born from the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice. I encourage, as soon as possible, manifestations of popular piety such as the worship of the relics of the patron saints of the cities. It is necessary for the people of God to ritually and publicly manifest their faith . . . These demonstrations will be an opportunity to emphasize the value of supplication, intercession, reparation for offenses against God and propitiation for Christian worship. It would be a good thing, where possible, for the processions of supplications including the litanies of the Saints to be given again . . .

“Divine worship is the great treasure of the Church. She cannot keep it hidden, she invites all men to it because she knows that in him “is gathered all human prayer, all human desire, all true human devotion, the true search for God, which is found finally realized in Christ” (Benedict XVI, Meeting with the clergy of Rome, March 2, 2010). I reiterate my deep compassion to all in these times of trial . . . Together, we realize that the communion of saints is not an empty word. Together, soon, we will once again render in the eyes of all, the worship which returns to God and which makes us his people” (Robert, Cardinal Sarah, May 2020, Letter on Catholic worship in these times of trial).