By Michael P. Riccards
The most recent pandemic has caused chaos for the major institutions of the United States, including the Catholic Church. Ingenious pastors have tried to incorporate the new protocols with the ancient ritual to keep some of the church sacraments alive.
Central to Catholic belief is of course the Mass, most importantly the Holy Eucharist. Already common sense and hygiene have ended the passing of the chalice at consecration. It was a post Vatican II change that frankly many never liked anyhow, but what of the host?
I have been an altar boy and an eucharistic minister for years and have never seen priests wash their hands before Mass. Maybe the new perils will change their practice. But still many Catholics feel uncomfortable with the passing of a host to their mouths. Either the church abandons the host or it comes up to a new creative way to say Mass, at least until this flu passes.
But the CDC is predicting a second wave of infection, which would be similar to the influenza during the 1918 flu outbreak. With the laissez faire use of masks and the increasing racial protests, that possibility is certainly accentuated. We must prepare for this epidemic and for the next. Researchers are finding new strains of infection in southern and southeast China now. Some are saying that all we need is to accelerate the vaccine process and our problems will go away, but polls show that about a quarter of us will not take any vaccine.
What happens to communal worship? I would like to suggest a modest proposal. We should have, while the weather permits, outdoor Masses. And every person should bring a piece of common bread and hold it up when the priest begins consecration. That way, we can guarantee the hygiene of the substance and keep with the ancient ritual that is the essence of communion.
The church has reached out before in extraordinary times with a different way of accomplishing the objectives of a sacramental church. During times of battle, priests can give absolution to hundreds of men. In peril, any of us can perform baptism — our most important sacrament — on babies. Marriage is a sacrament between a man and woman as the real ministers; priests are just chief witnesses. In the 1950s in Communist East Europe, loyal Catholic bishops ordained women, acts later called illicit by the Vatican but still valid. And records of St Francis tell us that the monks who had no priests were told to confess to each other.
And so we are left with confirmation and with the last rites. Perhaps while we are considering what to do with instruction for confirmation, since penance is a lost sacrament, we consider using television to teach children. Do not get an EWTN speaker but a powerful and creative media savvy person who knows how to use television, YouTube and Zoom for instructional purposes. The question would be: How did St. Paul use the media of his time to turn a hunted and obscure cult into a universal church.
In the end perhaps we have simply Christ’s promise that where there are two or three, I am in the midst of them.
Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including his two-volume history of the presidency, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, and the recently published Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief.