The time has come for Catholics to return to Mass in person, and the time has come for bishops to restore the Sunday Mass obligation. Catholics are not missing the sacrifice of the Mass because of COVID-19, they are skipping Mass because they simply do not think it is important enough. (The same was true before the pandemic.) The vast majority of Catholics are not even aware of the dispensation. They simply believe that COVID-19 gives them an excuse to miss Mass. While this may have been true for a while, it is clear that attendance is both safe and critical for the Catholic faith.
Countless bishops across the globe issued statements back in March that remain intact today. Most, if not all, bishops stated that they “dispense all Catholics in the territory of this diocese from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, until further notice.” It is absolutely critical that the Church provide exactly what our obligation toward worship is in these unprecedented times that are becoming more and more safe despite COVID-19, because the virtual is not the same as the physically present.
On February 9th, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, of the archdiocese of Detroit, issued a letter announcing the expiration of the general dispensation from attending Mass in person. He stated, “God did not come to us virtually. He came to us—and continues to come to us—in the flesh.” Archbishop Vigneron’s leadership is both refreshing and needed.
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The dispensation is still in place for people meeting certain criteria, such as the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, pregnant women, and those who have significant fear or anxiety of contracting the virus at Mass. Using this line of reasoning, Archbishop Vigneron and the other bishops could have done this with the dispensation months ago.
Most Catholics who are not attending Mass are not in the category of advanced age, nor are they individuals with pre-existing conditions. They’re also, for the most part, not viewers of virtual Masses. The large portion of Catholics not attending were also not attending before the virus. However, harm has been done, because countless Christians saw that churches closed down for quite some time last year, leading them to believe that attendance at Mass must not be that important.
Therefore, the restoration of the obligation is essential to show that the Church is back (she never left) and that being physically present is necessary. Restoring the obligation to attend Mass in person can also be a great opportunity to teach what the Church means by requiring attendance as mandatory while showing that this is the constitutive element of following Jesus Christ because it is where He is actually present.
In its section on the Sunday obligation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (CCC 2181).
The key term in the above-mentioned statement from the catechism is “participate.” This evokes the understanding of active participation at the Mass. The Church chooses her words carefully, and she decides that participation is a pivotal ingredient to keeping the Sunday obligation. What exactly does it mean to participate in the Eucharist? Pope Benedict XVI, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, noted that participation is not constricted to the external sphere.
“The word ‘part-icipation’ refers to a principal action in which everyone has a ‘part.’ And so, if we want to discover the kind of doing that active participation involves, we need, first of all, to determine what this central action is in which all the members of the community are supposed to participate.”
Benedict goes on to describe that the fundamental action inside of the Mass is the Eucharistic Prayer, the means by which, and the moment in which, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the risen and living Jesus Christ. This is the instance of climactic and divinely intense facilitation between heaven and earth. During the words of this ancient prayer, we are called forth to take part in the Mass through the focus of our minds, the labor of our wills, and the elevation of our souls.
The One who acts is Christ. He uses the priest as the instrument by which He is made present through the power of the Holy Spirit. The role of the faithful is to pray, especially Benedict notes, “to pray for it to become our sacrifice, that we ourselves…may be transformed into the Logos, conformed to the Logos and so be made the true Body of Christ.”
Our physical presence at Mass is pivotal because Jesus acted in the flesh and continues to come to us in the flesh. Now, more than ever, it is both “necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life…and especially the Eucharist,” as noted by Cardinal Sarah last September. This is not only wise advice from the former Prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship, but a practical plea to all Catholics to return to the place of the utmost grace.
The sad danger is that some bishops may be fearful that relinquishing the dispensation will place them at odds with the highly political nature of the pandemic and its restrictions. Worship of God is not political, and this is not even primarily about religious freedom. What is at stake are souls, not a political system or pandemic backlash. Missing Mass violates the third commandment, while being present for Mass creates holy saints that can enter the world and renew it from the inside out.
Bishops are called to teach, sanctify, and govern. May they heed the call of Christ and the faithful to govern well by removing the dispensation while teaching why attending Mass is critical to a disciple’s life. May they allow Jesus to sanctify the Church through a return to in-person worship and a radical encounter with the Son of God.
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