The parish where I worship collects food items at weekend Masses in order to provide support to a food pantry in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. As is the case in many other places, my region is under a shelter in place order and public liturgical services are severely curtailed. On Thursdays, I walk from my apartment to the parish center to drop off double my usual assortment of peanut butter, cereal and rice since the pantry’s needs have no doubt increased and the supply has probably gone down.
Last week, on my return walk, I passed another Catholic church which was open for private prayer. I was a bit tired and achy from the walk, carrying two bags of groceries for two miles. I welcomed the opportunity to sit and rest and pray. I entered the church and discovered that I was the only occupant. I sat down and pondered before the Lord questions of need and hunger, illness and health, suffering and hope. The lit candle marking the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle burned steadily behind its red-tinted covering as I mused.
It occurred to me that I had made a contribution, however small, to respond to those who hunger by delivering cereal and peanut butter to my parish and that there I was in church hungering for the Bread of Life . . . and there it was in the tabernacle. What if the tabernacle was unlocked? What if I just walked over to it? I squelched this line of thought immediately but I assessed why addressing my hunger via access to the tabernacle would be wrong. If for no other reason, it would be wrong because Eucharist is an ecclesial happening. Eating this super-substantial bread requires ecclesial companions, the “with bread” people of an assembly. (I am setting aside here the matter of priests who celebrate private Masses; I am not ordained so I never have this option. I am leaving aside as well the matter of Viaticum or communion for the sick, both of which are ecclesial actions.)
I left the church with a deeper awareness of my yearning for the Bread of Life and an awareness as well that this “my” yearning can never be isolated from the “our” yearning for the sacramental encounter with Christ. My encounter with the sacramental Christ is other than it should be unless it is part of an “our” encounter. Louis-Marie Chauvet puts it this way.
Mass is not meant to favor an intimate relation to God—in that case it might be better to follow Mass on television. It is a church action. It is lived as a church, a church made up of men, women, and children who are sinners but who dare to acknowledge themselves as the ‘”holy church” of God. [The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Merch of the Body (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 38]
In a time when so many Christians can access Mass only via TV or Internet, one might quarrel with Chauvet but still, humans, and a fortiori Christians, are relational beings. Being of the ecclesial Body of Christ requires assembling and proximity. My experience alone in the church before the tabernacle reminded me of this truth in a visceral way. Yet, in these days of distancing, it is paradoxically the case that, as relational beings, being of the ecclesial Body of Christ requires being physically apart from each other, for the sake of the other.
God speed the day of our assembling anew.