Liturgical Lessons in Time of Plague

A stone crucifix stands in front of rows of vines as autumn colors mark a change in seasons on October 10, 2019 in Ingersheim, in the Alsace region of eastern France. (Photo credit: David Silverman/Getty Images)

The Church, and all of us as believers, have had a tough year, with so many adjustments made in response to the coronavirus “plague.” We’ve had to accept restrictions on Mass attendance. We’ve suspended congregational singing. Even funerals have been limited to only immediate family of the deceased.

There’s no doubt it’s been challenging. It’s been frustrating. It’s been a time of trial, from which we haven’t yet fully emerged.

But this year has also provided opportunities to examine some of the sacramental and liturgical practices we usually don’t ponder too deeply. And it’s forced some creative thinking that may suggest positive ways of going forward, even when fears about contagion are finally behind us.

At my parish, we’ve made one change in particular that addresses a problem of long-standing: how we conduct the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In response to reforms of the Second Vatican Council, most churches abandoned old-style confessionals in which priest and penitent were separated by a wall or screen. The “reconciliation rooms” that replaced them have contributed to confusion about the sacrament, encouraging the idea that confession is more about counseling than forgiveness.

To alleviate fears about sharing germs in a confined space, we moved the sacrament out into the church, establishing confession “stations” set far enough apart to allow priest and penitent to speak without being overheard. People’s anxieties about possible infection have been eased. And the arrangement relieves priests of concern about any suspicions of inappropriate behavior, since everything is happening in plain sight.

On the liturgical side, in order to guard against germ transmission at Mass, we’ve taken a more restrained approach to the Kiss of Peace, discouraging hand shaking. The Kiss of Peace has always been an optional practice, and it’s something over which people tend to disagree.

Some folks see it was a sign of welcoming and fellowship. They look forward to it as a high point of Mass. Others are uncomfortable, finding it artificial and somewhat off-putting.

I can respect either attitude. But as a priest, I’ve observed how people, especially children, can get carried away in their enthusiasm for this moment of interaction. All the hugs, peace signs, and high-fives tend to be disruptive at an especially sacred time in the liturgy, when the Eucharist has been consecrated, and people are being prepared to receive the body and blood of Christ.

My view is that we would be better off without shaking hands, even when the pandemic is past.

Another practice that bears rethinking is sharing the common cup at communion. It’s often maintained that reception of the Eucharist under both species is a “fuller sign” of the sacrament than receiving only the host. And there’s truth in that.

But the pandemic has drawn attention to the fact that germs can be spread when many people drink from the same vessel, and not only COVID germs. Despite what some might wish to believe, there’s no definitive evidence that the alcohol content of wine is sufficient to protect against infection.

The widespread (though optional) practice of sharing the cup was suspended in accordance with the theological principle that we receive the “whole Christ” — body, blood, soul, and divinity — in the host alone. And I think it would be wise to make single-species communion the primary liturgical practice from now on.

Infection avoidance prompted alterations in a couple of other liturgical practices this year. In my parish, we didn’t wash feet on Holy Thursday and Good Friday’s veneration of the cross was done differently.

Traditionally, the foot washing ceremony has been seen as a memorial of Jesus’ institution of the clergy. And so twelve men were always selected to have their feet washed during the Holy Thursday service. In recent years, however, it’s become common to include women, as a sign of inclusiveness.

Even though Pope Francis has declared that the significance of foot washing should be understood in this broader way, the practice has become contentious. It takes the focus of the ritual off the Apostles, all of whom were men. And in our time, when group sensitivity is acute, it creates pressure to be more and more representative.

Seeking to avoid the close proximity and physical contact (you can’t keep “social distance” from someone whose feet you’re washing), we omitted the ritual. This sidestepped the controversy connected with it.

During Good Friday services, the custom has long been for worshippers to line up and kiss the cross (or the corpus on it) as part of the veneration ritual. Many people have always been uncomfortable with that practice, since the usual quick wipe of the spot where people’s lips or breath touch the surface can’t be considered adequate sanitization.

With COVID adding to the anxiety, this year venerating the cross was accomplished in a non-contact way. In our parish, we held up the crucifix in a spotlight as everyone bowed in silent devotion. The experience was actually quite moving.

Not washing feet on Thursday or lining up for veneration on Friday offered the ancillary benefit of shortening two liturgies that usually run quite long. Maybe it would be best all-around if foot washing became a thing of the past, and non-contact veneration became the Good Friday norm.

If there’s one result of the pandemic which I believe has to be seen as a positive, it’s live-streaming of Masses. The Internet has brought worship to people for whom attendance at church is a special challenge, in particular the elderly and infirm.

This benefit was especially evident with the Easter Vigil Mass. Because of the time that Mass is held on Saturday night, many folks had never experienced one of the most beautiful liturgies of the Church year. Live streaming brought them this special grace and helped them to feel a connection with their parishes and the broader Catholic family.

Naturally, watching Mass by video doesn’t take the place of in-person attendance. But it makes a big difference to people who, for valid reasons, can’t be on hand.

It also encourages a sense of staying attached to the parish, not only among those who are sick, but among those who might not be attending because they’re away. They can check in online to keep up with what’s going on.

I strongly encourage parishes to budget money for a good streaming system and high-speed network connectivity. It’s a worthwhile investment in people’s spiritual lives and parish relations.

The coronavirus “plague” has forced us, as a Church, to examine our practices, to reevaluate many things we had taken for granted, to think in new ways. Now we must absorb the lessons of this difficult year, and apply them in making ourselves a better Church.

A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online here.

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Blessings for a Priest During the Pandemic

A priest gives Holy Communion. (Photo credit: Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)

It may seem strange to say it, but this past year of pandemic has brought blessings in unexpected ways.

For one thing, it’s provided a time for thinking and reevaluating. We’ve been given a unique opportunity to reflect on our relationships — with our families, with our friends — and so to gain a new appreciation for how important those we care about really are.

Many of us were unable to visit relatives, even when the need for personal contact was urgent.

In my own case, my sister advised me to reconsider my plan for a visit home to New Jersey, unless I was prepared to stay two full weeks. If I tried to leave the state prior to then, I might be forced into quarantine.

We’ve had to live with numerous restrictions — not only on our freedom to travel, but even on such mundane freedoms as where we’re permitted to eat or shop. And of course, we’ve had to accept wearing masks, something I’m still not used to. I miss seeing people’s faces.

But all of this has helped to make us more aware of how freely we’re accustomed to living our lives as Americans. And that’s an insight for which we should be grateful.

We should also be grateful for the profound reminder we’ve gotten about how fragile life is. The death count loomed large this year, especially in the early weeks, when it seemed COVID might become a terrifying, unstoppable plague. Many became perversely addicted to reports and statistics of people who were sick or who had died. A sneeze or a tickle in the throat made everyone wonder: Do I have the symptoms?

But this heightened awareness too has been a good thing. It’s served as what the Church calls “memento mori,” a reminder that life is finite, that death awaits all of us.

And so — to adapt a current political cliché — this year of crisis didn’t go to waste. It encouraged us to examine the realities of life.

Perhaps the thing that’s surprised me most is that this has been a wonderful year to be a priest.

It’s all too easy for priests to take our role for granted, even lose our sense of self worth. We go through the same actions day after day. And it must be said that we can no longer count on the regard people showed for clergy in years past.

How many times I’ve heard from my brother priests, “It’s not what it used to be.” And even if, in reality, nothing is what it used to be (for good or for bad), we can easily become despondent. From time to time, we need a reminder of how important the priesthood is, and that’s what this pandemic year has been. It’s certainly so for me.

Two occurrences involved with administering sacraments brought that into sharp focus. In the first instance, a man who asked me to hear his confession revealed a burden of grave sins. It was his first confession in some 40 years (a good biblical number), and it prompted him to write me afterward to thank me and to express his wondrous sense of relief at receiving absolution after such a long time.

I felt like I had done a good day’s work. A soul was saved. God couldn’t have given him — or me — a better gift.

In the other instance, I went for a hospital visit to administer the anointing of the sick to someone in the Intensive Care Unit who was gravely ill. I must admit feeling a certain hesitation about going into the ICU, but it proved a remarkable experience.

First, I was impressed by the care and professionalism of the nurses who suited me up in anti-infection gear. My outfit was extremely elaborate (I looked like someone who had come from outer space), requiring much time and attention to detail on their part.

Second, the patient’s family asked if the anointing ceremony could be live-streamed. Unable to be physically present with their loved one, they still wanted to share in this important moment. I was deeply touched by the love expressed, even at a distance. And so people in different parts of the country watched the anointing.

Both of these instances — that of the man’s first confession after four decades, and that with the patient facing death — were prompted by circumstances related to the pandemic, and both in some way revealed how people depend on their priests.

Everyone still needs the experience of penitence, even if they don’t go to confession as often as they used to. People still need comfort and resolution at the end of life. The sacraments involved are of the utmost importance, and only priests can administer them.

That’s the power of the priesthood. Sometimes I’m awed when I think about it.

And just as priests administer the sacraments to their people, so the people administer a kind of “sacrament” to us.

After all, what is a sacrament? It’s an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. And the “sacrament” I’m talking about is the people themselves — you — who give grace to your priests. We need you to support us, to encourage us, and to love us.

That’s become clearer to me this year than ever before. And that’s why, for all the trials and loss and frustration involved in this pandemic, I see a tremendous blessing.

A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online here.

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