Mass cancellations: Are we lacking in faith?

Where faith and reason meet COVID-19

As dioceses across the world have decided to cancel Mass due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many faithful have asked various questions concerning the value of the Eucharist and what the Church teaches about various topics related to these actions.

In order to provide a response to these issues, we asked two experts to speak on the subject: Father Angel Perez-Lopez, Professor of Philosophy and Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, and Dr. Michel Therrien, President of Preambula Group, a lay apostolate dedicated to the new evangelization.

Father Perez first wished to reassure the faithful that Masses have not been cancelled, only their public celebration. “The Church around the world continues to celebrate Mass, priests are saying Mass around the world. What we have done is that we have invited the faithful to participate in the Mass in a different way, and we have done so for health issues,” he said.

According to Dr. Therrien, it is important to consider that, historically, this is not the first time the Church has taken such actions to combat the spread of disease, and that cancelling the public celebration of the Mass doesn’t mean the faithful are unable to receive the graces of the Eucharist.

“It’s important to know that the Eucharist is at work and operative in the Church even though we’re not participating through the reception of Holy Communion during the celebration of the Mass. The Mass is being celebrated on behalf of the Body of Christ all over the world, and the graces of those Masses are benefitting the Body of Christ, whether we’re at Mass or not,” he said. “This is why the faithful are being invited to make a spiritual act of communion and to participate in livestreamed Masses.”

For this reason, Father Perez added that cancelling Masses does not imply that the Church is not relying on the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our faith.

‘Wouldn’t God protect his people during the Mass?’

Among the many questions that have arisen on this topic, one has been prevalent: Does the public Mass cancellation imply that the Church’s fear of the coronavirus is due to a lack of faith in God? After all, wouldn’t God prevent such evil from happening at Mass?

To answer these questions, both experts referred to the Church’s teaching about the relationship between faith and reason.

“There’s no reason not to believe that a disease will spread during Mass as it would spread in any other public gathering,” Dr. Therrien said. “If you go back to the Middle Ages and throughout history, and look at different plagues, like the Bubonic plague, a great portion of the European population died, including many people of tremendous faith. So, it would be unreasonable to suggest or imply that there is a one-to-one correlation between whether people get ill from contact with a virus and whether they have faith or not. Jesus never made such a correlation. It is possible that God may grant a person protection, but we cannot apply that to the whole Church. With that kind of reasoning, we would then have to ask, ‘why bother to wash your hands or cover your mouth when you sneeze?’ That logic breaks down very quickly — I just have to have faith.”

Similarly, Father Perez said that God calls man to cooperate with him using all of his faculties.

“It would be an error we could call ‘providentialism,’ to say that providence will take care of everything, and therefore man has no need to use his reason or God-given faculties. In this situation we are to cooperate with God,” he said. “It would be foolish to believe that God will not allow someone to die. God allows people to die all the time for their good, because the life of our body is not the ultimate good, eternal salvation is. That’s why God could allow someone to die of the coronavirus also attending Mass.”

When asked if a disease could be transmitted during communion, Father Angel replied in the affirmative, explaining that, among the accidental qualities that are kept by the Body and Blood of Christ, the capacity to transmit a virus would naturally be one of them.

“Saying that a disease couldn’t be transmitted [during communion] would be as false as thinking that one could never get drunk from drinking the Blood of Christ. It’s false, because the blood has all the accidental qualities of wine. All of us who are priests know very well that if you say many Masses in a day and have not eaten, you need to be careful. And so, bread and wine have all the accidental qualities after they are transubstantiated, among them the capacity to transmit a virus,” he said.

A decision from faith and reason

Taking faith and reason into account during this crisis, Dr. Therrien believes it is reasonable that leaders in the Church would act with prudence to seriously curb the spread of a disease that is known to be fatal to people who are vulnerable, especially the elderly.

“Along with our government officials, our Church leaders are choosing, whether we agree or not, to act with solidarity for the most vulnerable and take extra precautions,” he said. “People can disagree with that and consider it an overreaction, but it’s easy to call the plays when you’re not in the position of authority. One thing that we have to be mindful of is that no leader wants to be the person who didn’t do enough.

“So, the question really becomes, ‘What ought we do under those circumstances?’ I’d say we should err on the side of charity, prudence and caution, in solidarity with the most vulnerable, cooperating with our society to try to stop [the virus]. We must also pray fervently that God helps us bring a swift end to this viral outbreak. That seems to be where I think both faith and reason can meet.”

To conclude, Father Perez urged all lay faithful to not lose hope during these times, and also to to strive to see these actions considering the common good.

“I would like to emphasize that the Church is not abandoning anyone. All the needed sacraments such as confession and anointing will be provided for those who are sick, even if we priests need to risk our own lives. Nevertheless, we need to think, first of all, about God, then about the common good and the need to discipline our own personal preferences and desires. It is really selfish to think only about myself, my individual preference and desire, even my personal devotion and whatever I want to have, at the expense of God and also at the expense of the good of others. It may look like piety or religiosity, but it is sinful,” he said.

“In these times of difficulty, we are to love God first of all, and love our neighbor and his salvation because of the love we have for God. And that is fundamental. If we lose sight of that, we are going to end up in a very bad situation.”

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.