The coronavirus pandemic restrictions have meant that Catholics are no longer taking the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church for granted.
But when that liturgical life returns, what might be different? What lessons might have been learned — by both priests and the faithful — during the pandemic restrictions? I suggest seven, though there are surely more.
1. Masses for Various Needs and Occasions
The Holy See provided a special Mass for the pandemic — proper prayers and readings suitable for this time. Many priests have used this Mass “formulary” in recent days and found it comforting to all who are able to follow the Mass, live or remotely.
The “pandemic” Mass is a good reminder that the Church has more than 50 Mass formularies in the Roman Missal for “Various Needs and Occasions.” They are not, strictly speaking, “votive” Masses, which are celebrated in honor of the Lord or the saints.
The list is comprehensive: “for the Church”; “for the priest on his anniversary”; “for chastity”; “for charity”; “for the grace of a happy death”; “in time of earthquake”; “for an end to storms”; “for the head of state or ruler.”
When news arrives of some atrocity against Christians, I sometimes offer the Mass “for our oppressors.” These Masses, rarely offered in most parishes, can be celebrated on any day without an obligatory Mass assigned. And in case there doesn’t seem to be exactly what is desired, there is a Mass “for giving thanks to God” and the even more broadly applicable Mass “in any need.”
This treasury of prayers, perhaps unlocked for many by the special pandemic Mass, should remain open.
2. A Complete Easter Vigil
One bad habit is cutting things out from the liturgy to save time. It is not a liturgical abuse, because it is permitted. I am guilty, as are many others. This year, for the first time, I celebrated the Easter vigil without the usual congregation, and all seven Old Testament readings were proclaimed, plus the Epistle from St. Paul and the Gospel. I have not done that before, usually opting for only three readings from the Old Testament.
Why? To save time, I suppose, though it is unlikely that anyone present ever had other appointments on Holy Saturday night at 9pm. On the holiest of all nights, why cut short the long sweep of salvation history, narrated in the readings for the Easter vigil?
I know of many priests who, given that it was absurd to argue that “pastoral necessity” mandated a shorter vigil when there was no congregation, did the full seven readings for the first time. Many of us, I expect, will maintain a “full” vigil next year with the congregation present.
Abuses should never be tolerated. But bad habits, too, need to be rooted out.
It should be noted that there is a special Vigil of Pentecost with its own set of Old Testament readings; the extended vigil in the Missal has seven. If the restrictions are lifted in time, would it not be wonderful to invite people to come to a full Vigil of Pentecost? After weeks of having no Mass, who would begrudge a little extra time in church to hear about the workings of the Spirit in salvation history?
3. Sign of Peace
Even before public Masses were suspended, one pandemic modification was the Sign or Peace exchanged by a respectful bow instead of a handshake. (Some people offered a V-shaped “peace” sign, but that was disconcerting to those who mistakenly thought it stood for “virus.”)
There are many parts of the Church — India, the Far East — where the bow is the norm always. It may be that after the pandemic is over, we maintain a “contactless” Sign of Peace. There is something respectful and reverent about bowing to each other that a handshake, which we use in many secular situations, does not convey.
4. Holy Mass and Holy Communion
The Church teaches that Holy Communion completes, or perfects, our participation at Holy Mass, but it is not obligatory. During the pandemic many have had to follow Holy Mass online, where no Holy Communion is possible. Others have attended Masses in parking lots or other outdoor venues where Holy Communion was not distributed. The practice of spiritual communion has become widespread.
The ironclad link between attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion is a bad habit developed for good reasons. But it pressures many people to receive Holy Communion when they should not and can lead to a sense of entitlement to Holy Communion, or a taking it for granted. That’s why Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, examining the life of St. Augustine, considered that a “Eucharistic” fast had something to recommend it.
The pandemic likely did not break that ironclad link, but perhaps weakened it. A renewed Eucharistic catechesis may now be possible.
5. God’s Holy Word
Unable to receive the sacraments, many Catholics had to “make do” with the Mass readings at home. But that is not a bad thing in itself. The sacred Scriptures ought to be at the heart of the domestic Church, the family at prayer. The Scriptures are not a sacrament, but are closely related to them; the ritual for all the sacraments includes the Scriptures.
There are four ways that Jesus is present at Holy Mass: in the congregation, for where two or three are gathered he is in their midst; in the proclamation of the Scriptures; in the person of the priest; and in the Most Holy Eucharist. The pandemic alerted us not to neglect the presence of the Lord Jesus in the sacred Scriptures — both at church and at home.
6. Devotional Life
Catholic life is not only about the sacraments, much less only about Holy Mass. A rich Catholic life include devotions — Eucharistic adoration, the Rosary, litanies, chaplets, novenas, the lot. Deprived of the sacraments now, many Catholics have ramped up their devotional life. That should not be allowed to wither when regular access to the sacraments returns.
One suggestion: A certain pious tradition considers the days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost to be the “first novena,” nine days of prayer after the Ascension awaiting Pentecost. The Blessed Mother and the apostles and some others were the nascent Church united in a novena of prayer (Acts 1:14).
The “Pentecost” novena begins the Friday after Ascension Thursday and goes until the vigil of Pentecost. One might consider those nine days in the Cenacle the source of the Church’s devotional life, just as Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are the source of the Church’s sacramental life. Why not renew that devotional life this coming Ascension and Pentecost?
7. Vesting Prayers Before Mass
The Church’s tradition has prayers for everything. And likely a litany, too. Most relevant to the pandemic, there is a prayer for the washing of hands. Specifically, the prayer the priest says when washing his hands before vesting for Mass:
Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendam omnem maculam; ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire.
In English: “Give virtue (strength) to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you with purity of mind and body.”
That prayer, which takes on added meaning during the pandemic, is one of the vesting prayers before Mass. Each vestment — amice, alb, cincture, stole, chasuble — has its own prayer. They are not mandatory, but highly recommended, and can be found posted in many sacristies. The vesting prayers and their meaning can be found briefly described on the website of the Vatican liturgical ceremonies office.
One of the jewels in the many-splendored crown of Benedict XVI’s preaching is his 2007 chrism Mass homily, precisely on priestly vestments and the vesting prayers.
For priests who have gotten out of the habit of saying the vesting prayers — perhaps because of many competing obligations just before Mass — the pandemic is a good occasion to take up the practice again. We certainly have time for it!
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.