This Sunday is the first of potentially many more Sundays on which American Catholics will remain home instead of going to Mass. So many of our lives are being affected by the Covid-19 contagion in a multitude of ways. We are all looking for Christ in the storm.
Today’s Guest Contributor is Father Andrew Bulso, priest and friend of Bellator Society.
He graciously answers 8 of our most pressing questions about how this present situation is affecting our Church and the faithful.
1) In addition to the ongoing list of recommendations that pastors and bishops are making to prevent the spread of Covd-19, some dioceses, like Rome, are suspending public Masses. Does this mean that there are no Masses being said?
Father Bulso: Suspending public Masses, that is, Masses at which large numbers of the faithful are physically present, certainly does not mean that no Masses can be said at all. I assume that most priests will continue to say Mass nearly every day, perhaps with the assistance of one altar server or even a handful of people. Many churches, monasteries, shrines, and so on are taking advantage of livestream technology to allow the faithful to participate in that way.
I think it is important to understand that the decision to stop public Masses does not imply a lack of faith in the Eucharist or lack of appreciation of the importance of the Mass.
Rather, it is a recognition of the seriousness of the situation with COVID-19 and our need to limit its spread. For those who are unable to attend Mass at this time, the hole they feel in their lives can be a beautiful witness to their love of the Mass and an occasion to grow in appreciation for the great gift that it is for us to be able to gather so frequently to celebrate the sacred liturgy.
It is perhaps also a moment of solidarity for us with those in the Amazon region, recently highlighted in the synod of bishops and Pope Francis’s post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia. So many people there are unable to have Mass regularly.
2) What is a dispensation from attending Mass? What does that mean for an individual?
Father Bulso: Let’s look first at the obligation to attend Mass. God commands us to “keep holy the Sabbath,” in other words, to keep a day set aside for rest and worship of God.
On a brief side note, it is amazing how difficult it is for us to keep this seemingly simple and straightforward commandment. The original Sabbath, of course, was Saturday, the seventh day of the week. The early Christians, however, gathered on the first day of the week, Sunday, which is the day on which our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That day became for us the day to rest and celebrate “the breaking of the bread.”
The Church’s precept to attend Mass every Sunday and on specified Holy Days is a concrete expression of how we are to follow the Lord’s commandment.
The obligation is universal (applies to all Catholics everywhere) and stems from divine law (law given by God Himself). There are, however, three basic instances in which a Catholic is not bound by this solemn obligation.
First, if it is physically impossible to fulfill it, for example, if there simply is not a Mass available where the person is. Second, if it is morally impossible, in other words, if there is some serious reason that prevents the person, for example, a mother who must stay home to care for a sick child. Third, if an individual has been given a dispensation from his pastor.
Please note that a pastor can only give the dispensation to individuals, not to his whole parish. It is possible for a bishop to give a general dispensation for his entire diocese, and it is likewise possible for the pope to dispense the whole world.
In any of these cases, it is still important for the faithful to strive to keep the day holy, insofar as they are able, for example, by giving God time in prayer, reading the readings for Mass, making a spiritual communion, or praying the rosary.
It is helpful to remember that we owe it to God in justice to offer him fitting worship, and, as His creatures, it is good for our souls to worship Him. (Those interested may refer to canons 1246-1248 of the Code of Canon Law for the obligation to participate in Mass on Sundays and Holy Days as well as the exceptions.)
3) What is a spiritual communion? Is it the same as receiving the Eucharist?
Father Bulso: “Spiritual communion” refers to the practice of inviting our Lord into our hearts and souls spiritually and uniting ourselves to Him in a way similar to (but different from) receiving the Eucharist, which we often call “Holy Communion.”
Prayers of spiritual communion usually express our desire to receive our Lord into our souls and may even refer specifically to our desire to receive the Eucharist.
There are great graces and spiritual fruits that come from making a spiritual communion, which can even be a good way to prepare to receive Holy Communion when we are at Mass. Ultimately, though, nothing can substitute the sacramental communion that happens through reception of the Eucharist. There are many formulas of this kind of prayer, and I can share a short one of which I am fond: “I wish, my Lord, to receive you with the purity, humility, and devotion with which your most holy Mother received you, with the spirit and fervor of the saints. Amen.”
4) Some dioceses are stopping face to face Confessions (only allowing Confession behind a screen)—do you think this will or should affect people seeking the Sacrament?
Father Bulso: I hope it will not deter anyone from seeking the Sacrament, and I do not think that it should.
Many of us, certainly, are accustomed to going “face to face,” and it can be reassuring to have that more personal contact with the priest. There is, however, a long tradition in the Church of confessing from behind the screen, which provides for anonymity and, in our current circumstances, protection from spread of disease.
From a theological perspective, confessing behind the screen helps emphasize the fact that one is confessing not to the priest himself but to God, with the priest acting as His instrument.
5) Why doesn’t the Church allow Confessions via phone or other remote methods?
Father Bulso: None of us is a Christian in isolation, and the Sacraments must always be celebrated with at least two people gathered physically.
Phones and other technologies provide a certain kind of connection and presence, but it is necessary to have that physical presence, which serves to represent the Body of Christ gathered together in the presence of our Lord. We do well here to recall the words of our Lord, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
6) What is the proper balance of personal piety vs. obedience to the Church/pastors in matters of faithful adherence to Mass attendance, etc.?
Father Bulso: Several issues in our current situation call us to discern how to balance our own preferences in practicing the faith and cooperation with Church authorities, notably her ordained ministers, especially bishops and pastors.
Let us first keep in mind that this is a new situation for all of us, and there is no play book.
Bishops and pastors are being called upon to make difficult decisions with the health and safety of their flocks at stake. Our default should be to cooperate with the decisions that are made, not only by Church leaders but also by government officials. Many of these decisions will request us to change our habits, and they are legitimate insofar as they ask us to exercise options permitted within the Church.
If, however, any of these decisions cross into a matter of conscience or ask us to do something not permitted by the Church’s law, then we would need to act according to our well-formed conscience.
The obvious example facing many people is the question of receiving Holy Communion in the hands.
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (n. 160), each communicant may receive either on the tongue or on the hand, at his or her discretion. Many bishops and pastors have requested that the faithful use the option for receiving on the hand. So the faithful have the right to receive on the tongue, but it might be better for now not to exercise that right.
If after honest reflection, someone’s conscience still leads him to receive on the tongue, he would do well to receive from a priest or deacon rather than an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, since a priest or deacon is probably more skilled at distributing on the tongue. For those who receive on the hand, it is always praiseworthy to check their hands and fingers carefully (but not scrupulously) to see if there are any fragments of the Blessed Sacrament. The faith teaches us that the whole of Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, is contained in every fragment or crumb of the consecrated Host.
7) What other measures can the faithful take to help the spiritual battle—as well as the natural battle—against Covid-19?
Father Bulso: We should all turn to God in prayer with utmost confidence and trust in His love for each one of us and His desire to give us all good things (see Matthew 7:7-11). There is no need to be overly anxious or worried, for our heavenly Father knows our each and every need (see Matthew 6:8).
We began Lent hearing those words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
We know that we will all face death someday, and we need have no fear of it, for our Lord has conquered death (see 1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Let us fear only sin, which is the one thing that can separate us from God, if we do not repent and turn back to him with all our hearts. I encourage everyone to read and take consolation in the following passages of Sacred Scripture: Matthew 6:25-34, about dependence on God, and Romans 8:28-38, about the invincible love of God in Christ.
Let us also run to the tender, maternal care of the Blessed Virgin Mary, faithfully and devoutly praying the most holy Rosary.
We should seek the intercession of St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, as well as St. Michael, our guardian angels, and all the angels and saints.
On the natural level, let us cooperate with the instructions given us by medical experts and maintain the highest level of hygiene, with all the inconveniences that it might entail, first and foremost for the protection of those who are most at risk. Pray also for an increase in the theological virtue of hope, that beautiful virtue that keeps us moving towards God in the face of any difficulty, entrusting ourselves with confidence to His power, faithfulness, kindness, and mercy (look up “Act of Hope” in any good Catholic prayer book or online here).
8) We are the universal Church. . .how can we best accompany our suffering brothers and sisters throughout the world?
Father Bulso: We would do well to pray daily for those who have been infected with COVID-19 or any other illness and to pray earnestly for their healing.
Let us join our prayers together for the prevention of any further spreading of the coronavirus.
I think it is also important to encourage and support one another with generous and loving responses. People react in many different ways. Some experience high levels of anxiety, while others are slow to accept the severity of the current crisis. We must make the effort to respond with patience and compassion to all.
In the face of suffering and death, it is good to remember that our Lord did not come to remove suffering and death but to take them upon Himself and thus to walk with us through them. This was His loving, if mysterious, plan, and, because of His goodness and power, we trust that it is the best plan.
Our Lord is the true Shepherd who can guide us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23), because He Himself has walked that valley (see also the encyclical of Pope Benedict Spe Salvi, n. 6).
Father Andy Bulso was born and raised in Nashville, TN. The oldest of five children and a cradle Catholic, he grew up loving the faith and began to hear the call to the priesthood around the age of 12. He went to the University of Notre Dame for undergraduate studies where he majored in the Program of Liberal Studies. After graduating from Notre Dame in 2009, he entered seminary. He spent two years of Pre-Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum and then went to the North American College in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2015, and, after ordination, he returned to Rome to complete the License of Sacred Theology in Biblical Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which he finished in 2017. He currently serves as an associate pastor at St. Henry Church in Nashville and as chaplain for the diocesan Office for Youth and Young Adults. He is also working towards a degree in canon law in the summer program at the Catholic University of America.