Liturgy and COVID-19

Among others, Alexander Schmemann has argued that gathering for worship is a theological act and not merely a sociological amalgamation of like-minded people.  Gathering is a response to the Lord’s invitation—a “summons” in the language of Eucharistic Prayer III—to “do this in memory of me” and, in the words of the Preface to Eucharistic Prayer IV, to give “voice to every creature under heaven” in a song of praise and thanksgiving.  Indeed, the third-century Didascalia Apostolorum warns Christians about neglecting Lord’s Day gathering and thereby rending and scattering the Lord’s (ecclesial) body.

COVID-19, the coronavirus, has sickened 75,000+ people and killed about 2,000 as of this writing.  Responding to the spread of this apparently easily communicable disease, governments have quarantined entire cities (e.g., in China) and placed restrictions on public gathering.  Christian communities as well have restricted some gatherings.  The Catholic Church in Singapore suspended Masses as did the Catholic Church in Hong Kong.  In Italy, too, Mass has been suspended in Milan, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, and Liguria.

In Ireland, the Archdiocese of Dublin has indicated that holy water fonts should be drained, the presider alone should commune from the chalice, and that Communion under the form of bread is to be given exclusively in the hand.

In the United States, two sample responses from Crookston, MN and Cincinnati, OH include reminding the faithful that if they suspect that they are ill, they are not obliged to attend Mass and for those faithful who do attend, exchanging peace without physical contact and receiving Communion only under the form of bread are permissible options.

The Catholic Church in Singapore has encouraged viewing Mass via video stream online.  I am guessing that Catholic officials in other regions are making similar suggestions.

Facing persecution under Diocletian, the martyrs of Abitine explained why they would not forego Eucharistic celebration: “Quia sine dominico non possumus” (because we cannot exist without the day of the Lord).

COVID-19 is not by any means the first time that liturgical gatherings have been suspended.  Catholics in Cincinnati, for example, were unable to gather for the Easter Vigil in 2001 because of a curfew imposed in the wake of civil unrest after an unarmed black man was killed by police in that city.  COVID-19 will not be the last time that liturgical gatherings will be suspended.

Still, what does it mean to be a people who must exist—even temporarily—without the day of the Lord?


  1. Here in the US — stop the cup, stop the peace greeting, but still allow communion on the tongue. Ridiculous!!!

    1. FWIW, in the parishes in my town directly north of downtown Boston, the exchange of peace became waves and nods when H1N1 was the last pandemic a decade ago, and never changed back. That turned out to be a permanent, hard change by popular choice.

      1. This puts me in mind of Emily Dickinson: “I only hope that heaven ain’t as lonely as New England used to be.”

      2. Notice she used past tense. Subtle point*. Actually, New England is relatively strong in communitarian culture compared to some other American regions. It’s just not facile. (I am personally not a fan of the Wave & Nod Pax, but the residue of the British Isles in New England is not yet fully past tense. There are people From Away who find it a welcome relief from the insistent extroversion dominant in much of American culture.)

        * Here’s an image of a kind she may have had in mind from well before her own more Romantic time.

  2. Well, I would like people who are alive now to continue celebrating Eucharist in the years to come. If a temporary ban is needed, so be it.

  3. In Ireland the advice for religious services comes from the Government’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre – document 511Kb:
    While viewing Mass on line is obviously a helpful resource for those unable to join the congregation, there is also the possibility that where there is a small group, perhaps all in isolation for a duration to avoid spreading infection, they can have an informal religious service among themselves, hearing and reflecting on the scripture for the day, and praying together. This can be their Lord’s Day gathering and celebration in that situation.

    1. An important question, Lee, and one which demographic trends in other places will magnify. I do not at all wish to equate Sunday services of the Word (with or without Communion) with the Sunday Eucharist and I do not know how often communities in the Amazon hold such Sunday services. These services are a distant second to the Mass but they do involve the assembly of the people. That assembly is by definition incomplete without an ordained minister but it is an assembly. What happens when assembling is itself ruled out?

      1. In our diocese, people are treated like adults. Avoid coming to Mass, receiving Communion, touching doors, touching people, dipping into water at the doors as one determines is best. A Catholic doctor friend noted to me that the human mouth is fairly well insulated from infection. The nose less so. He counsels to wash hands, and avoid placing one’s hands near one’s nose. There is no significant danger receiving from the cup. Unless one’s method of reception is … unorthodoxically nasal.

        As for the question, what does it mean? … If it lasts a week or two, maybe not much. If longer, fence-sitters may lose a habit.

  4. Well, folks preparing for the Paschal Triduum may need to consider the ritual Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. I wonder how many communities are aware of #69 in Paschale Solemnitatis (the 1988 Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts) and its provision – in the case of crowds – for a single communal act of veneration during the liturgy properly speaking, and in #71 providing for individual veneration after the liturgy. I mention it this far out because that rite tends to involve the most music for that liturgy, and were it altered in such a way, that could significantly affect triaging of preparation of music for the Triduum.

    1. We did it that way in my natal parish, with just the unveiling during the service, until the mid-1980s. But we also walked down the aisle to the Cross on our knees so it was long and probably best to do the actual veneration after the service was over. There were always two purificators next to the pillow to wipe the feet with, not a bad practice to follow today.

  5. Is it known with certainty what behavior spreads the virus? I would think that liturgical changes (such as a ban on hand-shaking during the Sign of Peace) should be based on a degree of certainty.

    1. Well, it’s currently classed in a family of viruses (the “common cold”, a collection of rhinoviruses, of which there are a cluster of cold-season and hot-season members – the hot-season ones are “worse” – is part of this family), about which we have information for past known varieties, but it’s in the human nature of these things that the precautionary principle (and fear) will fill the information gap before sufficient data is available to have a degree of certainty. We’re in a time where American workplaces are engaged in mandatory work-from-home tests of their business continuity plans (especially when they’ve had to make representations and warranties about such plans), which is not something that has been undertaken lightly.

      PS: It would not be unwarranted for parishes to consider the likelihood of reduced attendance – and reduced offertory offerings. And, at a more fundamental and important level, on introducing people to habits of cultivating Hope (not optimism) in the face of habits of information consumption that groom us to remain anxious (which is basically all of consumer capitalism). Among many exempla one could cite, Dorothy Day is “relevant” here: especially in her “failures”. In order to cultivate Hope, one must confront the Darkness and the tragic dimension of life that most homilists in “comfortable” communities appear scared to engage deeply in because it’s uncomfortable.

      1. And I when it comes to finding Hope in the midst of a sense of Death stalking us, here’s a provocative thought – even if it’s not quite a Christian fervorino – from Vladimir Nabokov:

        “I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a signboard had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall.

        This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from common sense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

        And for a proper fervorino on Hope:

        “He said not
        ‘Thou shalt not be tempested,
        thou shalt not be travailed,
        thou shalt not be dis-eased’;
        but He said,
        ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’ ”
        Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love

    2. A doctor I consulted with experience in infectious disease had some important info. He said the nose is much more vulnerable to infection than mouth or hands. (Assuming no cuts or sores.) The hardest thing is people self-transmitting hand to nasal passages, and so many people rub or scratch their noses. The studies on sharing a common cup are plentiful, and show no significant passage of disease for Christians who have that.

      Let’s face it: it’s about cooties, mostly. We can wash and if need be, sanitize our hands. But most of us don’t pay attention or are unconvinced by what doctors tell us. We might all be safer just staying at home, sick or well. But them we have to deal with our well-insulated homes with closed windows.

  6. Am I the only one to be exasperated by dioceses mandating pre-Communion hand sanitizers for priests and ministers?

    Apart from the fact that using it transmits an odour from the fingers to the hosts and makes them taste highly unpleasant, the use of hand sanitizers is useless in combatting COVID-19. Sanitizers are antibacterial, not antiviral. Soap and hot water are the way to deal with a virus. Failing that, a solution containing at least 60% alcohol is recommended in the medical guidance I have read.

    And don’t get me started on the fact that Communion from the chalice, when properly administered, has been known for many years to be much safer and much more hygienic than Communion under the form of bread….

    1. Well, the chalice presents the potential for indirect forms of spread: by the unpurified gripping of the stem back and forth. Also, it’s not only touching by lip or hands that’s an issue, but dispersal by breathing over, as it were. (Hey, celebrants in the OF, if you’re tempted to imitate EF praxis by pronouncing the words of institution with your nose in your chalice – resist the temptation! Then again, maybe you don’t permit offering the chalice to the faithful so it’s a non-issue…) In any event, offering the chalice is interdicted here (Archdiocese of Boston), as is often the case in the middle of flu season. Fonts are to be regularly emptied, cleansed, et cet. The Pax becomes largely wave and nod by default but no one “enforces” so some embrace, et cet.

  7. I am late to this thread, but since the topic is still timely, allow me to chime in.

    Actually, we are not “without the Day of the Lord.” It’s still Sunday, with or without Eucharist. The question is: how do we observe it. Sadly, this turn of phrase reveals that we are not much aware that we are keeping a day of the Lord, if we think it no longer exists in the absence of the Eucharist. Granted, Eucharist is central to the tradition of Sunday, but in exceptional cases, resiliency takes on exceptional forms.

    World history includes examples of the church growing in situations that are far from ideal. From 1784 to 1794, there were no priests in Korea, yet a thriving Christian community was born and blossomed there; by 1801 they numbered 10,000.

    During an epidemic, the big question for me is whether and how we will pull together to meet challenges in terms of human needs, how we will exercise the virtues, how we will love our neighbor as ourselves. Our mettle will be tested as we need to resist the impulse of hoarding or the temptation to demonize each other. I’m not too optimistic that we will do well under this test. But if all that Eucharist means is a nice hour on Sunday, and it hasn’t converted our hearts to the Lord and his teaching, then we’ll be facing not merely an absence of gathering but the failure of our Christianity.

    1. Yes.

      I also wonder, for church communities that have been privileged to largely imagine themselves insulated from daily fear of improvident death and disease, if an unwillingness to engage realistically with such subjects in church teaches children to be even more fearful of them. I remember seeing the Vietnam War and last parts of the civil rights movement played out violently on television as a child; in my family (but not my church), those things were vividly engaged in animated discussion (it helped that my oldest pair of sibs were a decade older), but that was not the case among most of my peers. These days, even more than then, there’s a lower-octane form of the Prosperity Gospel in Catholic homiletics that conveys the notion that if we’re kind and good to others, especially the less privileged, then the demonstrated unfairness and seeming randomness of life – and God’s seeming silence in the face of it – will not be experienced by us in it fullness (presumably because we’ll at least enjoy some ego satisfaction in ameliorating that experience for others) – which is not quite true, inasmuch as our Lord didn’t promise that to us. Perceptive children who raise questions indicating some awareness of this in their own ways can present a moment of spiritual terror to adults trying to appear to hold things together.

  8. And now the directions to cease public liturgies begin in the USA. Starting with the Archdiocese of Seattle.

    1. And also closing as of Saturday morning, 14 March, Holy Trinity, Georgetown, one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese of Washington.

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