By Albert Gerhards, Benedikt Kranemann, Stephan Winter
In view of the crisis in which people and societies worldwide find themselves because of the so-called coronavirus pandemic, the Christian churches are facing particular challenges. As to be expected, current reactions to this difficult and in many ways confusing situation are marked by great concern, anxiety, and insecurity. All the more important is it to examine as soberly as possible the guidelines for communal activity of the German Catholic bishops’ conference – with a view to liturgy as well as other things.
In all this the primary principle is: churches too must be guided by scientific recommendations and hold to protective measures undertaken by civil authorities. This is the framework within which the planning of liturgies can be seriously discussed.
Many of the faithful were confronted with concrete decisions about what to do on the Third Sunday of Lent. They stood before church doors which were closed because of the danger of infection. But sometimes one could read that behind closed doors there would be so-called “ghost Masses” [like “ghost games” in soccer, which are played without spectators present as a penalty for their misbehavior – tr.] So priests celebrated Masses alone. In some pastoral letters it was stated, among other things, that these Masses take place vicariously for the people, with intercession for the needs of the community affected by the pandemic. In some places and in some social media this was welcomed and encouraged.
The Mass is not the private possession of the priest
But does this befit the circumstances and does it comport with a contemporary understanding of liturgy? Clearly not. It disregards e.g. division of roles, which of course for theological reasons should apply not only to the celebration of the Eucharist. In the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council it is expressly made clear that the liturgy is enacted communally and publicly by all the baptized (Sacrosanctum Conciliium, 7). Thus the Church came and comes entirely into its own when a local community gathers for worship in its differentiated membership, above all on Sundays and feast days. Private celebration in particular is not compatible with this understanding of Eucharist.
In the course of history there have repeatedly been situations in which liturgy was not possible, or possible only under very great danger – war time, societal disturbances, natural catastrophes, famine, or epidemics. The response to these situations arose from the mentality most predominant the era at hand: with prayer, acts of penance, litanies, devotions, and processions. And for the celebration of the Mass, already in early times in fact, emergency measures developed under the principle of substitutional representation. This led to a spirituality of the “private Mass” which the priest “read” or “said” – for others, to be sure, who “put in an order,” but understood as the priest’s very own possession.
According to such an understanding, the sign of God’s encounter with humanity in the midst of the world is not communal celebration, but rather a cultic act which the priest performs correctly. And precisely for this reason, for centuries the faithful were as much as possible excluded from Communion during the Mass; at the most they received Communion outside Mass, or refrained entirely from Communion out of anxiety of touching the holy material. It was a long path until the Council could again place the notion of communio in the first place: the locally gathered community is the bearer of the liturgy! A corresponding particular understanding of church and ministerial office developed – an understanding which, precisely in times of urgent need, we should not lightly throw to the wind.
One sees the extent to which obsolete understandings surface again in the current crisis in some diocesan guidelines, local practices, and telltale language. Private Masses as described above are strongly encouraged – and admittedly, one can appeal to the church law in force (canon 904 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law). When such Masses are broadcast on social media, we see the painful and possibly fateful resurrection of things rightly done away with. Concerning what happens in secret in the sense of spiritual connectedness, we easily come to a double exclusion via social media presentation: within, the priest exclusively celebrating and communicating; without, the laity reduced to virtual presence and “spiritual Communion.”
One also comes across the suggestion in this connection to expose the Host in the monstrance in open churches; there are even videos of clergy processing through the city with the monstrance. A connection to the celebration of the Eucharist, which is a prerequisite for eucharistic devotion, is no longer present here. This is no longer acceptable today and does damage to the liturgy.
No representation of the community by the priest alone
It does not necessarily follow from all this that the church may or should do entirely without the bodily presence of pastoral ministers. It is urgent that the churches, together with civil authorities, clarify how we can further preserve ritual attention to the needy, ill, and dying. Those in pastoral ministry must continue to attend to their activities – adapted to the situation at hand – as much as possible. But vicarious representation of the community cannot credibly be exhibited by one individual person. If Mass continues to be celebrated in parishes, the priest alone cannot credibly be the tangible representative. Only a community, however small, can. If even this would not be possible today, in light of the most recent developments, then all who are bound in the common priesthood of baptism are called to seek out responsibly, as possible, forms of common listening to the Word of God and prayer.
In this manner, the time at hand can be used to awaken and encourage spiritual potential in families, circles of friends, and social networks, not least by means of the creative use of digital media. We look, among other things, for suggestions from dioceses and liturgical institutes – and some good initial suggestions have already been published. But finally, the question arises as to why Vespers or other forms of the Liturgy of the Word are so seldom broadcast in the media. The suspicion arises that the theology of the Word, which actually should be a given since the Council, has hardly permeated the office bears, and even less been implemented in practice. It’s now coming back to roost!
In the best case, the crisis could contribute to an enrichment of liturgical assemblies, which hopefully will soon take place again, because it uncovers and activates slumbering charisms and gifts. Images such as those in Italy, where people sing and make music together from balconies, have an entirely prophetic character!
The liturgical scholars who wrote this text are Albert Gerhards (Bonn, retired), Benedikt Kranemann (Erfurt), and Stephan Winter (Münster). This article is reprinted with kind permission of katholisch.de. Translation awr.