There’s something that I find very distasteful in the “do whatever you can to get to Mass and receive the Eucharist” rhetoric. I’m trying to work through what I find problematic about it, and I think the issue can be examined in a variety of ways. Most often, the rhetoric is mixed in with theological and canonical falsehoods.
First, one should note that regular reception of the Eucharist is not a “necessary” and “universal” part of Catholic practice. For the majority of Christian history, Catholics did not receive the Eucharist weekly, largely for practical reasons. In many parts of the world, this is still the case. And those Catholics were not and are not any “less Catholic” or “less grace-filled” than Catholics who can and do receive the Eucharist weekly today. Of course, Catholics should follow obligations to attend Mass set by their relevant ecclesial authorities, and we should joyfully partake in Eucharistic communion when possible. But one must note that both the universal Sunday obligation and regular reception are recent creations relative to the history of Christianity. While regional Councils had penalties as early as the year 300 (with the Council of Elvira) for missing liturgy too often, and exhortations to attend regularly have been made from the earliest centuries of the Church, a universal weekly requirement was not codified until the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
Second, many suggest that Catholics should be willing to take the maximal risk to receive today. I heard in a homily a couple of weeks ago that only the elderly should consider foregoing Mass, as they were the only ones sufficiently at-risk to justify missing it. This is canonically false. The dispensations are much broader, and even without the dispensations, Roman Catholics are canonically able to miss Mass for a variety of reasons. Canons 1246-1248 are most relevant here. Illness generally is an acceptable excuse. Ed Peters, in explaining the relevant canon law, has noted how at times the decision to forego Mass because of illness or risk of illness to others may be a matter of both justice and charity towards one’s neighbor. That is, there may even be times when one has a moral responsibility to miss Mass.
Third, there is the suggestion that the Eucharist is the only “real” way to receive Christ. This ignores significant portions of medieval theology, in particular, which has explicitly explored the mysterious ways in which reception of Christ in Scripture is just as deep as reception in the Eucharist. Catholics shy away from this idea, perhaps for fear they will sound like Protestants. But this idea is Catholic, and is older than the Reformation.
Ann Astell, in her theological work Eating Beauty, explores the the “transformative mediation on the scriptures,” which was “traditionally imaged as a chewing and savoring of the text.” She explores how the saints would “literally eat the Beauty that is the source of their own progressive beautification and beautification” in two ways: by “taking into themselves the living Word of the scriptures and of the Eucharist.” She explores in particular how Bernard of Clairvaux likens the consumption of Scripture to that of the Eucharist. She writes:
“The sacred scriptures and the eucharistic Host are for Bernard and his Cistercian followers the twinned houses where Christ the Incarnate Word abides humbly in hiding, beneath a veil, behind a wall, in order that he might be transferred into other dwellings, taken into one’s heart and soul as nourishing food.”
Bernard and Astell take the consumption of Christ in Scripture so seriously that they do not see either the consumption of Scripture or the consumption of the Eucharist as a more “real” way of receiving Christ, but rather as two ways in which Christians receive Christ really.
Catholics receive Christ in both the Eucharistic communion and in Scripture, which itself can be a form of Eucharistic communion. Many Catholics have chosen to emphasize the former in recent years, with the explosion of Eucharistic devotions. However, American Catholics in particular have lost an appreciation for the taste and transformative consumption of Scripture, and the pandemic is an excellent opportunity to regain this. Catholic priests and leaders could use the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvigorate a devotion to Scripture among the laity, to resuscitate centuries-old practices of “eating” Scripture through meditation. This opportunity can still be taken.
Fourth, there is the suggestion that you are more Catholic if you risk Mass. This is false and merits no additional elaboration.
Fifth, I’ve heard some argue that going to Mass is the “courageous” choice in the midst of the pandemic. This is an ill-conceived way to frame the question, in part because courage is not the only virtue to consider. More important than courage is prudence, which should help inform whether, when, and how to exercise courage. The “go to Mass to be brave” presentation of courage is highly individualistic, framing the question in a way that focuses solely on individual concerns for safety where the “risk” considered is only that with regards to oneself, in contrast to a more ecclesial (in the Greek sense) decision of choosing to not go to Mass to help protect the health of the community.
Courage falls relatively low in the hierarchy of the virtues. Nonetheless, it takes a preeminence in more individualized and power-based approaches to Christianity. In contrast, prudence should guide the practice of the virtues and train us in the proper subordination of “courage.” Charity, the highest of the virtues, should play a more central role here. As noted above, justice towards one’s neighbor is also relevant. So while some might exhort you to practice “courage” when considering your Mass attendance in the midst of the pandemic, I would exhort you to consider the hierarchy of virtues and to recognize that courage falls relatively low among them.
None of this is to say that Catholics should not be going to Mass. The pandemic, with the limited ability to attend Mass together, is like a long Advent and a long Lent, where we suffer and wait in longing to be together in Eucharistic communion. Many can and do rightfully choose to go to Mass in the midst of the pandemic. I’ve made the decision to go to Mass at various points. I love going to Mass and am grieved to not see many of my fellow parishioners there, even if I respect and affirm their decision to forego in-person attendance at this time. I wish they were there. But the rhetoric used to pressure them to go to Mass should be questioned, and often rejected.
A clarifying note regarding point 3:
Because I have been asked about this by a number of people, I am not here arguing that reading Scripture is or should be a substitute for attending liturgy and receiving communion as a community. I would argue that Scripture and liturgy should have a dynamic relationship. Even if Christ is really present in both, they are not the same. This is partly why grief is an appropriate response to the present situation.
In a previous version of this post, I had stated that Christ is “fully” present in both Scripture and the Eucharist. This was probably not the theologically appropriate term to use. Even though Christ is received really in Scripture, the mode of Christ substantially present in the Eucharist is unique. After receiving feedback from some friends, I have accordingly updated this post.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.