By Helmut Hoping
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing local churches to shut down their worship life. Yet not every diocese is prepared to cancel all liturgical celebrations. To name just two examples: the Archdiocese of Freiburg broadcasts the celebration of Mass from the cathedral church daily in livestream; the Archdiocese of Hamburg has asked priests to celebrate the Mass, when necessary, alone, representatively for the faithful who can no longer participate in it.
Three liturgical scholars have now offered sharp critique of Masses that are celebrated by priests behind closed doors. They even speak of “ghost Masses,” which they say do not correspond to the contemporary understanding of Eucharist. The authors appeal here to no. 7 of the liturgy constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. It states there that “in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.” The authors express it like this: “The liturgy is enacted communally and publicly by all the baptized.”
The “missa sine populo” (Mass without the people) incriminated by the authors is of course not the basic form of the celebration of the Mass. But for the Council it is a legitimate form. This is because all liturgical actions of the church “are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church” (SC 26), even as “communal celebration … is to be preferred … to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private” (SC 27).
Because in the offering of the Eucharist “the work of redemption is exercised continually” (Code of Canon Law 904), the Catholic Church recommends that priests celebrate daily, for “even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church” (ibid).
The authors see in this an understanding of liturgy which is not longer contemporary. For individual celebrations of priests they use the derogatory terms “private Mass” and “private celebration,” which are found in neither the Council nor canon law. A livestreamed celebration of Mass which, because of the coronavirus epidemic, a priest celebrates alone or with an acolyte and cantor, cannot be compared to a private Mass with priests celebrated in the Middle Ages on side altars for the poor souls in purgatory. To claim today that priests consider the Eucharist to be “their own private possession” is thus highly inappropriate.
The text employed by the authors for their understanding of liturgy cites Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” Thus, for a communal celebration it is not a matter of the size of the liturgical assembly. At the celebration of Eucharist on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, on which the community ordinarily gathers for the Eucharist, in the cases of an exceptional situation forced upon us by the coronavirus pandemic, two or three of the faithful should join in the celebration if possible.
Of course Matthew 18:20 applies also and above to prayer and hearing the Word of God, such as in families, or when two or three people pray Vespers in church, whether broadcast or not. No one claims that vicarious representation in the “ecclesia orans” [praying church] only happens by priests. The aversion of the authors to Masses celebrated by priests for others during the coronavirus pandemic is striking. Their suggestion ultimately leads even to cancelling all Masses and being bound together as the People in prayer and hearing the Word of God. For a church that possesses the center of its life in the celebration of the Eucharist, this is a deeply offensive suggestion which touches upon the identity of the Catholic Church.
I agree entirely with the authors in their appeal “to awaken and encourage spiritual potential in families, circles of friends, and social networks” during the coronavirus pandemic, including “by means of the creative use of digital media.” The phenomenon of a “digital church” is not new. Faithful who are not able to participate physically in worship services have been able for some time to participate with spiritual benefit in televised or internet liturgies (“church on the screen”). The possibilities for a world-embracing “ecclesia orans” [praying church] are certainly not yet exhausted in this case, even as the celebration of the Eucharist – the sacrament of bodily presence par excellence – reaches its limits in the “digital church.”
But the Eucharist has always been celebrated for those who cannot physically take part in it. The coronavirus pandemic demands unconventional solutions. Of course it would be desirable to broadcast not only Mass celebrations, but also Vespers and other forms of the Word of God at times. But to play off celebrations of the Word of God against individual celebrations of priests in closed churches in the present exceptional circumstances is recognizably motivated by a well-known critique of the Catholic understand of church, eucharist, and the office of priest such as is set out in the texts of the Council – when one doesn’t read them selectively. But the coronavirus pandemic is not well suited to making theological hay from it.
Helmut Hoping is professor of dogmatic and liturgical theology at the University Freiburg in Breisgau. He is a permanent deacon and was theological adviser to the German Catholic bishops’ conference from 2006 to 2014. This article is reprinted with kind permission of katholisch.de. Translation awr.