With the recent extension of special emergency measures in Italy (and elsewhere) recent days have witnessed the imposition of various forms of quarantine. Restrictions on the free movement of persons and exhortations to those displaying certain flu like symptoms to self-quarantine are on the increase. So too is the guidance issued by individual bishops and various Bishops' Conferences on the precautions to be adopted in a liturgical setting. These have ranged from various practical counsels concerning hygiene to modification of liturgical participation. The reception of sacred species from the ciborium only and the elimination of the handshake as the means of expressing 'the sign of peace', have received a good deal of attention. For some observers, the former will be something to be endured pro tem; the latter long over due.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, much less attention has been given to the inability of the faithful to participate in the Holy Mass at all; with church congregations -like other social gatherings- considered to pose a high risk of infection.
In certain parts of the Universal Church, separation from participation in the Holy Mass is not a recent development. Nor is it confined to the oft-quoted shortage of priests. On the contrary, in those regions the issue is less a question of insufficient priests pro rata numbers of the faithful, and more to do with the expansive territories over which the faithful are spread. However, there is another category which - again - seemingly is less deserving of media attention than others. It comprises those persons who are located in parts of the world in which the faith (and its authentic transmission) is suppressed or subject to other direct forms of political control. That is, those countries in which priests and faithful are prohibited from free manifestation of their faith; whether alone or in conjunction with others.
It cannot be disputed that the liturgical life of the Church is centred upon the celebration of the sacraments. The Catechism reminds us that it is through Holy Communion that we unite ourselves to Christ, as sharers in His body and blood to form one body [CCC. 1331]. Further, the Church teaches, and we accept, that the Eucharist offers access a unique participation in, and unity with Christ Himself. How might we respond then to this enforced season of deprivation?
In his Christus Vincit, Bishop Athanasius Schneider provides some food for reflection. Commenting upon his childhood in Kyrgyzstan, he observes:
"On Sundays, we closed all the doors, drew the curtains and knelt down- my parents with the four children- and we sanctified the day of the Lord because there was no priest; no Mass. We had to sanctify the day of the Lord, so in the morning we prayed the Rosary, a litany, prayers, and then we made our spiritual communion, to unite ourselves spiritually with the Mass which was being celebrated in some place at that time, at which we could not assist except in spirit. And we would invite the Lord to visit us and we made our Act of Contrition. It was our Sunday worship as a family in the house, in the domestic church. Then, sometimes a priest secretly came, and it was always a deep and silent joy."
With the aid of the internet, there are numerous opportunities by which we may join with the faithful in prayer. These provide means of social (albeit indirect) participation in liturgical celebrations. Indeed, in many parts of the Church, such liturgies are routinely 'streamed' into the homes of those who, whether by reason of infirmity, age, geographical distance or other factors, cannot physically attend. However, it is perhaps worth keeping in mind that the liturgy of the Holy Mass, whilst the sacrament of unity and the unifying sacrament, is directed to Christ's unceasing desire to gather a people 'unto Himself'. That is: unity with Him. This unity is one of desire. For Thomas Aquinas, this is nothing more nor less than a spiritual communion:
"[A]n ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament and in lovingly embracing Him as if we had actually received Him."
In our present times, we too might adopt the radical option of prayer; invoking the love of Christ to infuse within us a unity with Him. Like the Jesus prayer, the invocation may be short, personal and direct. It rests not upon a formula, but, rather - in the word of the Eucharistic prayer- a desire that we may remain faithful to His teachings and "never be parted from Him".
In their Manual of Eucharistic Adoration, the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration offer the following as a prayer of spiritual communion:
"My Jesus, I believe you are present in the Most Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there, and I unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen."
The adoption of such a prayer in this Lenten season might better equip us with the necessary disposition to participate in that 'deep and silent joy' of receiving Him in the fulness of the sacrament when we are next able to do so. That is a silent joy which is borne of a renewed awareness of the reality of His presence and our need of Him.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.