A reminder that the Mass is an act of public worship.
It’s Holy Week, and for the first time in my life I won’t be going to church. I couldn’t if I tried. So firm is our determination to stop the spread of the coronavirus that we have closed houses of worship across the country.
I find myself thinking of Tenebrae, a service Catholics usually celebrate this week. The church is lit by a stand of 15 candles. They are gradually extinguished as we sing and read from scripture. The first reading, from Lamentations, mourns the ruin of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity:
How solitary sits the city Once filled with people. She who was great among the nations Is now like a widow.
The destruction of Solomon’s temple prefigures the crucifixion and death of Jesus. At the end of the service, the church is left in darkness and the congregation files out in silence.
This year Tenebrae has a new meaning. Our churches have been dark for a month, and we don’t know when they will reopen. So we have turned to virtual substitutes. At Catholic University the chaplain offers daily Mass on Facebook. Bishop Robert Barron broadcasts Mass from his chapel in Los Angeles through the Word on Fire network. This is how Catholics across America will celebrate Easter, the holiest day of the year.
We are right to be thankful for the developments in technology that make such electronic communion possible. And given our appropriate commitment to social distancing, it’s the best we can do at the moment. But it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
One reason is that Mass is not something you can actually celebrate by yourself, on your laptop. You need a congregation. The group that gathers in church is different from a crowd in a subway or a theater. When I take the train, or go to the movies, it’s for my own individual reasons. Others around me might have the same route or destination, but my objective is not linked to theirs. Some say religion is like this. Justice Douglas once observed that “religion is an individual experience.”
But it’s not. The Mass is an act of public worship. Unless there’s a particularly good reason, a priest should not celebrate it alone. God’s relation to us and ours to God is communal. The congregation is the people of God, not a collection of individuals. We are saved not one by one, but because we belong to the community.
This is not a uniquely Catholic, or even Christian, idea. Jews require a minyan, a quorum of 10 adults, to perform certain religious obligations like sitting shiva. That’s because they understand themselves as a chosen people, not a collection of individuals.
So one shortcoming of the online Mass is that it lacks a congregation. Even more obviously, it lacks the presence of God. Catholics believe that when they receive holy communion, they consume the body of Christ.
This may be the most distinctive feature of Catholicism — its sacramental view of the world. We believe that God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Holy Week celebrates his Passion, death, and resurrection. We believe that the Mass perpetuates the sacrifice of the cross and allows the whole community to share in the divine life. This is something the best webcams will never be able to bring to us.
And what will be the long-term consequences of this deprivation? If we go too long without Mass and the sacraments, will we eventually lose our attachment to the faith? Or will we follow the example of our fathers in faith, who sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept, when they remembered Zion?
John Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America.