The Easter season for 2020 will certainly go down in the history books as one of the oddest and heartbreaking seasons ever experienced. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives to say the least, but we as Catholic Christians can (and must) still have joy in our Lord. He has risen and he has trampled death!
Knowing this, we should certainly be asking ourselves what our response should be during this time of self-isolation and uncertainty. Are we being good stewards of our time? Are we being charitable? Are we bringing the hope of Christ to others? Are we making every effort to pursue personal holiness and sanctity? And most importantly, are we giving proper worship due to Almighty God?
One issue that comes to the forefront is the misunderstandings that have surfaced from otherwise good and earnest Catholics at this time, especially concerning the sacraments. With the suspension of public Masses across the country, church closures in several places, and access to the life-giving and essential sacraments limited, many discussions are taking place on how we live our lives as Catholic Christians in a time of crisis.
The Sacred Mysteries
One could say that this stems from the ineffective catechesis that has been lacking for the last two or three generations of Catholics across the globe, especially in the West. This was in some way confirmed last year when the Pew Research claimed seven out of ten American Catholics did not believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Is it any surprise then that many Catholics, in the wake of the pandemic, do not understand the basics of their faith when it comes to the sacraments? Such is apparent in the comments shared below, which have not been uncommon in conversations and interactions my peers and I have had both in real life and across social media over the last several weeks. As Pope St. John Paul II rightly observed in 2004:
“What is urgent is the evangelization of a world that not only does not know the basic aspects of Christian dogma, but has in great part lost even the memory of the cultural elements of Christianity.”
Just then what are some of these aspects St. John Paul speaks of? They are certainly numerous, but we will limit ourselves to focusing on three facets at the present moment, all relating to the sacraments and how we must understand them both during this time of crisis and beyond it. What follows are some of the comments made by Catholics online in regards to the sacraments of baptism, confession, and the Holy Eucharist (and by extension, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass). Let’s take a look at how Catholics should correctly respond to questions on these sacraments during the time of the pandemic, as it will be helpful to our understanding of the sacred mysteries that our Lord Jesus has given us through his Church.
What especially breaks my heart right now are the catechumens and infants who have had their baptisms postponed. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:
“Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord’s will, it is necessary for salvation, as is the Church herself, which we enter by Baptism.”CCC 1277
Of course, the Catechism also stresses that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments”, and bishops have reminded their catechumens that they are working hard to get a date rescheduled for their entry into the Church while reminding them of “the baptism of desire”. But through this, we must remember that God has us rely on the ordinary means to bring salvation to others, not the extraordinary, so the Catechism is also clear in stating:
“The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.”CCC 1257
Bearing this in mind, the following exchange focusing on infant baptism between a young mother and a fellow sister in Christ is concerning:
Mother: “My bishop stopped all baptisms and my local church canceled them indefinitely and said there are no exceptions. I’m not postponing my baby’s baptism by more than two weeks. They didn’t give a future date.”
Person One: “Why not just postpone for a month or 2?”
Person Two: “[Joan], as a Catholic, I think you are being a bit ridiculous. Refusing to postpone it any more than 2 weeks? Seriously? This is about your baby’s health! Being baptised doesn’t mean anything to babies and young children. God wouldn’t turn his back on them because they aren’t baptised either.”
The Importance of Infant Baptism
Is the mother here being “ridiculous”? In fact, the mother is doing exactly what she should be doing to see to the spiritual health and salvation of the child entrusted to her by God. There are many things wrong with the short comment left by Person Two, but the main thing to keep in mind is that baptism absolutely means something, especially to a baby or young child. It is how each and every member of the human race is incorporated into the Body of Christ.
Referencing the Church’s Code of Canon Law, the Catechism is explicit in teaching:
“The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.”CCC 1250
Person Two comments that “God won’t turn his back” on the baby, which is true, but she misses the point that withholding baptism from the child is basically spiritual neglect. What would happen if, God forbid, the infant were to suddenly die before the mother’s parish allowed her to bring the child in for baptism? While CCC 1261 gives us consolation that “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God”, we must remember that we do not know for certain the fate of unbaptized infants. We have a “prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us (cf. John 16:12).” With this in mind, seeing to an infant’s baptism is of paramount importance given what we as Catholics profess regarding the sacrament of baptism.
The mother is well within her rights, and shows loving concern, to refuse the postponement of her child’s baptism for an indeterminate time. Just how shortly after birth does the Church teach infants should be baptized? The Code of Canon Law is very clear:
Can. 867 §1: Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it.
As we can see, delays of more than a few weeks are to be avoided. Dr. Cathy Caridi, an American canon lawyer, points out that given the Church’s teaching outlined above:
“It is only logical that Catholic parents should want to have their newborn children baptized as soon as possible… Thus it should be clear that waiting for months… to have one’s child baptized is not only not in keeping with the Church’s theological teaching, it is also contrary to canon law.”
Parents will be happy to know that they may validly and licitly baptize their children in case of necessity, but this is truly an extraordinary circumstance that must be talked about with their pastor.
To conclude, Dr. Edward Peters, also a canon lawyer, notes the following, and gives parents some helpful tips during this time that desire baptism for their children, ensuring that lines of communication be kept open with the pastor:
“I agree with the Exegetical Commentary which states that Canon 867 ‘protected the fundamental right of the parents to baptize their children within the first few weeks. This right shall not be limited or restricted by a particular law, at least not by a norm of lower rank than the [1983 Code] itself.’…
“Parents, unable to secure the ministrations of a cleric during a pandemic, who baptize their own children, should simply report such baptisms to the pastor of the parish, per c. 878. May I suggest an audio-visual recording of the event, should the pastor later have any questions about matter, form, and so on. A later ‘incorporation’ rite before the community may still be offered such children.”
With access in some places to the sacrament of confession made difficult, or impossible, during this pandemic, many have been asking a question that has come up quite a bit over the last several decades that needs addressing again: Is there any reason not to have phone confession or rather video confession? It would increase tremendously the use of confession.”
So can someone receive the sacrament of reconciliation, or make a confession, over the phone? Or what about via the internet on a Zoom call? The short answer is no. We must realize that all sacraments have matter and form. The matter for the sacrament of baptism is pretty clear to us: the water. In the case of the sacrament of confession, the matter is the sins of the penitent. One must confess those sins, be contrite, and perform the satisfaction due for such sins. As is the case for all of the other sacraments, a person must be physically present.
Think of it this way: Could a person receive baptism without being immersed in water, or at least having it sprinkled on them? Or could someone receive Confirmation or anointing of the sick without being blessed with the holy oils? Certainly not. So, in the same way, we must be physically or morally present before the priest (working in the person of Christ) to actually receive absolution for our sins. The sacraments convey grace spiritually through physical means. Just as you and I are a unity of body and soul, so too is the physical aspect of the sacramental sign united to the spiritual realities. One cannot separate the body from the soul in a way that calls the body a mere shell and the soul the real person. So when it comes to confession, we must be physically present to bring our sins to the table.
‘There Are No Sacraments on the Internet’
We often talk about how we must have a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus. When speaking of confession, the Catechism recognizes this, and it is on this basis that the only way one receives valid absolution is by being personally present:
“Christ is at work in each of the sacraments. He personally addresses every sinner: ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’… Personal confession is thus the form most expressive of reconciliation with God and with the Church.”CCC 1484
If Jesus is personally addressing us, we cannot have the phone or the internet be a substitute. When we have a phone conversation, we hear their familiar voice transmitted through the line, but we are not actually interacting or relating with them as we would in each other’s presence. After a Peruvian bishop rescinded a suggestion to allow confession by phone a few weeks ago, Fr. Thomas Weinandy of the International Theological Commission stated the following:
“The sacraments flow from the Incarnation, and because of that, there has to be a bodily presence of the one who is enacting the sacrament, and the one who is receiving the sacrament. They’re doing the sacrament together.
“The Incarnation sets the framework for the sacramental order. Sacraments by their very nature, are incarnational signs that effect what they symbolize and symbolize what they effect, and one must be a part of that sign and reality to participate in the sacrament.”
What’s more is that artificial ways of confessing one’s sins to receive absolution has been condemned as far back as the seventeenth century under Pope Clement VIII, who “forbade as false, rash, and scandalous the proposition, namely, ‘that it is lawful through letters or through a messenger to confess sins sacramentally to an absent confessor, and to receive absolution from that same absent confessor.” Phones and Zoom conferences act as “messengers” in our day. More recently the Pontifical Council for Social Communication declared in 2002’s The Church and Internet:
“There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.”
3. The Eucharist
Undoubtedly the hardest aspect of dealing with this coronavirus for Catholics is not being able to receive the source and summit of our faith, the Holy Eucharist. With public Masses suspended across the country, many of the laity are not able to receive the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord sacramentally. Thankfully, we do have the gift of televised and streamed Masses, allowing us opportunities to make spiritual communions. But to quote The Church and Internet again:
“Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community.”
Knowing this, I was saddened to read the following comment on a popular Catholic YouTube channel:
“Through the gift of televised Mass, we can worship with the multitudes of the faithful; we can say the Penitential Rite; we can hear the Word of God proclaimed; we can immerse ourselves in the beautiful words of the Eucharistic prayer; we can see the priest elevate the Body and Blood of our savior Jesus Christ; and we can make a spiritual communion. We can do this with a heart of humility, and with empathy for those who are suffering with the effects of the virus.
“So I ask…of what are we being deprived?”
I would like to here respond to this question. There are several things we are being deprived of. The Eucharist Itself would be the main thing to come to mind for many. But in the first place I would rather say that we are mainly being deprived of the actual Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We as Catholics are under no obligation to receive the Eucharist every time we go to Mass, although daily reception of Communion is something very good we should all strive for! But the fact of the matter is that we can go to participate fully in the Holy Sacrifice without receiving Holy Communion. To not be able to actually participate in the Mass, and be truly present at Calvary, is a deprivation that we should all be praying that we be delivered from soon.
Bearing This Cross
So while televised Mass is a gift, it is not the same by any means. Bishop Paul Bradley of the Diocese of Kalamazoo lays this out beautifully, and he is quoted at length below, emphases mine:
“The fullness of grace is poured out in the Mass in a unique and special way. All grace flows to us through the Cross of Christ, and we participate in the Paschal Mystery at every Mass. This actual grace is significant; it is the highest form of grace we can receive as we participate in Jesus’ offering up of Himself to the Father. However, sometimes the faithful might forget about the very real graces they can receive whenever they assist at the Mass. This grace is powerful in aiding those in Purgatory on their way to Heaven, in causing conversions, in healings, and in all of our needs. When we cannot attend Mass, we are not able to receive that same grace, but grace is available nonetheless. So we can receive grace outside of the celebration of Mass but those graces are different.
“So the question arises: is watching or even participating in a live streamed Mass the same as being at Mass? The quick answer is no. If the obligation were not lifted for the public at this time a live streamed Mass cannot fulfill the obligation… While we earnestly pray daily for an end to this pandemic, and a return to the regularity of the life of the Church, this use of technology can provide a partial remedy to the faithful, in order that very soon so they may be able to participate fully at the Mass.”
Basically, we are making the best out of a difficult and heart-wrenching situation. Yes, we can immerse ourselves in the words of the Eucharistic prayer, and make a spiritual communion offering up our prayers for the sick, dying, and needy. But we must be clear that only at Mass are we truly at the foot of the Cross. There at Mass, says Bishop Bradley, “time is suspended, and we mystically participate in the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, all at once.” The image of the elevated Host we see streaming is just that: an image, composed of pixilated dots which cannot be adored because pixilated dots of light aren’t our Lord Jesus. Again, not being there is a deprivation. But we bear this cross with our Lord Jesus’ help during this time, praying for the day to come very soon where we receive the sacramental graces necessary to live the life of holiness we are called to.
Uniting Christ’s Body
Indeed, the sacraments are necessary, so to not receive them, especially our Lord himself in Holy Communion, is a deprivation in the truest sense. The Council of Trent dogmatically defined the necessity of the sacraments during its seventh session:
“If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation but are superfluous, and that without them or without the desire of them men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification, though all (the sacraments) are not necessary for each one, let him be anathema.”
We hear a lot today about what is essential and necessary for work and travel. So just who does define what is necessary? The Church has clearly defined that the sacraments are necessary for our salvation. This doesn’t include just the three sacraments we’ve looked at today, but all seven of them. Additionally, the Holy Mass is the prayer par excellence of the Church, and when we cannot be inside our parishes to offer that Holy Sacrifice, that surely qualifies as a deprivation of sorts. But through all these trials and struggles we currently face, our Lord Jesus will not leave us orphans and will continue to pour upon us his graces during this time we are deprived of participation in the sacraments and communal worship at Mass.
As one priest I know has said so often during this time, “Do not let this time of social distancing become a time of spiritual distancing!” Pray for your loved ones. Pray for our leaders, both civic and within the Church (and sign the open letter to our bishops endorsed by Matt Fradd, Kimberly Hahn, Steve Ray, and many others). Pray for each other and pray for the Church. As St. John Chrysostom taught:
“There is nothing more worthwhile than to pray to God and to converse with him, for prayer unites us with God as his companions.”
And by extension, it will unite all the members of Christ’s Body together, and that is especially what we need right now more than ever.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.