In our current trial, in which anxious people are isolated from their normal routines — including attendance at Holy Mass — we have a wonderful teaching moment to reiterate what the Catholic Church believes about herself as a communion of persons.
While we might have a glancing familiarity with the history of the Church as an institution, and a more personal association with those parishes we have attended over the years, we may not often call to mind the deeper Spiritual reality in which we were immersed on the day of our Baptism.
Baptism is a Sacrament with a two-fold effect, washing us clean from original sin and grafting us onto Christ’s Own Body. This initiation unites us into a profound communion with believers — those we might see on a daily basis, those we once knew who have since died, and those we never knew but who have held the torch of faith aloft since the Resurrection. This universal communion in the Mystical Body of Christ is what makes the Church “a mystery of communion with the God Who is love” (“CCC,” 1118).
The beauty of this Mystical Body is that it is strengthened by God’s own life, which we call grace. It is most efficiently transmitted through the Sacraments, and thus after Baptism, we are invited to partake of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Paschal Mystery from which the Church was born, and through which she draws her very life. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “this truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 1). The other name for the Eucharist — Holy Communion — points to the reality that our faith is one of corporate belief, encouraging us to share in each other’s joys and sorrows, to bind ourselves through Corporal and Spiritual Works, and to place the gifts and fruits of the Spirit we enjoy at the disposal of all.
There are three bonds of unity in particular: the profession of one Apostolic faith, the recognition of Apostolic succession as a visible sign of magisterial authority, and the “common celebration of Divine worship” (“CCC,” 815), the last unfortunately having been interrupted in recent weeks. That this is distressing is to a great degree a testament to the value we place on Sunday Mass; but that many have bewailed the loss in overly dramatic terms is not edifying —and may actually mean that we have mislaid the fundamental truths about the economy of grace.
Let us think for a moment about an exhausted young mother whose care for her newborn doesn’t allow her to attend Holy Mass, or devoted caregivers and their charges who are confined on any given Sunday, or persecuted believers who are far from the Sacraments for years on end due to repressive regimes. In each of these cases, their Baptism suffices, and the prayers of the faithful (yes, those nearly rote prayers we only half attend to because we’re scrambling for the weekly envelope) encompass them into the life-giving Communion that will soon spill over from the altar of sacrifice.
Those who cannot join the “common celebration” should take comfort knowing that all over the world there are those who pray for them: priests who will daily offer the Mass, myriad communities of consecrated souls who have oblated themselves on behalf of a world in need, and a Heaven bursting with saints who consistently watch over and intercede for those who remain in this “vale of tears.”
We cannot know how soon we may attend public Liturgies at our local parishes, and we may find ourselves cloistered in place when our hearts want nothing more than to walk the profound path of Holy Week and Easter, but St. John Paul II assured us that “the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 8). Its infinite value is ours for the taking, and perhaps during this time we can devote ourselves to prayers of gratitude for our priests, intercession for those discouraged by their isolation, and deeper appreciation for Christ’s life-giving sacrifice that makes us “as it were, one mystical person” (Lumen gentium, 11).
In that regard, there is no quarantine that can ever truly separate us!
Anchor columnist Genevieve Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius.typepad.com.