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.”