The coronavirus pandemic has had troubling effects for people practicing their religion. Due to restrictions on the size of gatherings, religious services have been curtailed and canceled.
The quarantines and lockdowns have been controversial for Catholics who gather on Sundays to partake of the Eucharist. By receiving the sanctified bread and wine, Catholics believe they eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The inability to gather for Mass means that Catholics have been limited in their ability to perform our most sacred rite.
Catholics refer to the Eucharist as “the Source and Summit of the faith.” This theological position comes from Lumen Gentium, a foundational document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council.
“Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It” (Lumen Gentium, 11).
For Catholics, there is no higher expression or experience of Christian faith than to receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ in communion with the entire Church, which is the very Body of Christ himself.
The inability to receive Communion regularly poses theological, ecclesiological, and pastoral questions for Catholics. How can the Church function as the Church without the members of the Church being able to partake of the most sacred sacrament of the faith?
Throughout the pandemic lockdowns, Catholics have bickered over the “right” way to deal with the crisis. Many, including bishops, have contended that any restriction placed on attendance by civil authorities amounts to a restriction on freedom of religion. Others, including bishops, suggest that following the guidelines set by local authorities is an expression of Christian charity for the wider community.
Pope Francis closed public Masses in the Vatican during the lockdowns in Italy, and he held widely watched daily Masses from Casa Santa Marta. This was an act of solidarity for the broader community and respect for the decisions of public health experts.
More recently, Pope Francis remarked in his October 14, 2020 General Audience, “I’m sorry that I greet you from afar, but I think that if we, as good citizens, fulfill the regulations from the authorities, this will be a help to end this pandemic.”
In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis addressed the fears and hopes of a global society afflicted with a viral pandemic and a contagion of isolation, indifference, and virtual illusion.
“The pain, uncertainty and fear, and the realization of our own limitations, brought on by the pandemic have only made it all the more urgent that we rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence.” (Fratelli Tutti, 33)
There are no easy answers to how many people should attend Mass these days or how often they should go. However, I’d like to consider the fact that the Eucharist is not only the summit of the faith but also its source.
In the spirit of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, I hear echoes of nature in the phrase “source and summit.” Summit reminds me of a mountaintop, and source sounds like the headwaters of a river.
In receiving the sanctified bread and wine, the faithful reach the apex of their spiritual lives by sharing in the very essence of Christ. Communion with the Bread of Life is nothing less than fellowship with the Creator. There is no higher peak one can reach than to share in the life of the Blessed Trinity.
Nevertheless, there is more to Communion than an isolated spiritual experience. In Christian theology, the body of Christ is more than his physical corpus; the body of Christ is also the Church. In receiving the Eucharist, the individual believer becomes united with Christ and shares in the life of the Church.
St. Paul said it like this, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1Corinthians 12:27).
As the source of a Christian’s life, the effects of a Eucharist are to flow through our daily actions. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
The waters of eternal life are not just for the individual. “And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Revelation 22:17)
A Catholic is to live a Eucharistic life that reaches out to others with the joy of the Gospel. Pope Francis explored this in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. (Evangelii Gaudium, 24)
Transformed into Christ himself, the blessed bread and wine become the spiritual food that transforms believers into the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, believers commune with Christ and one another in a union of loving service to the world.
“Thus both by reason of the offering and through Holy Communion all take part in this liturgical service, not indeed, all in the same way but each in that way which is proper to himself. Strengthened in Holy Communion by the Body of Christ, they then manifest in a concrete way that unity of the people of God which is suitably signified and wondrously brought about by this most august sacrament.” (Lumen Gentium, 11).
Those who receive Christ are to share Christ. The living waters are not a pond. They are river gushing forth from the mountaintop irrigating the valleys below.
Instead of complaining about and arguing over restrictions on Mass attendance during the pandemic, Catholics can change our focus. Rather than looking for a missing mountaintop experience, we can view the Eucharist that we have already received as the fount of Living Water that springs forth from our hearts in love, through our hands in service, and into our communities in service.