Suspension of Masses: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Saint Leo University theology, religion faculty member Dr. Thomas Humphries examines what it means to miss Mass and religious services during the coronavirus pandemic.
With the recent news that Florida's Catholic bishops are suspending public Masses in an attempt to be socially responsible during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Catholics are facing tons of practical and theoretical questions about the Eucharist.
Lent is a time when we often add an extra prayer and remove an extra vice (giving up sweets is a popular choice) or at least shed some of those non-necessary practices that hold us back. This often means adding eucharistic devotions and worshiping more frequently. Beyond extra Lenten devotions, nothing is more central for Catholic liturgical life than the Eucharist.
It is, as the Church reminds us, the "source and summit" of our lives. And now, the bishops are not simply asking us, but telling us that we will not be able to celebrate the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord at the altars where we regularly worship. If I'm honest, this strikes me as a gut punch.
Like many "cradle Catholics," I can remember missing Sunday Mass only a very few times. Facing a period of weeks, if not months, of being away from Mass makes me uneasy and brings a number of questions and emotions to mind.
There are no easy answers. But there is a parallel that can help us sort through some of our responses.
All sacraments focus on the statement and experience of "this is my body" in one way or another. Sacraments flow from the Incarnation and often include multiple bodily senses. Sacraments are premised on being present body, mind, and soul for humans.
I think of the tender ways in which mothers and fathers say to their children, "this is my body" by being present with them. I recognize that my response to not being able to participate in Mass is the same as the response I have when I am told that I cannot be with my wife or my daughter or with my brothers and my parents.
Even something as mundane as travel means we can no longer say "this is my body" in all the ways we normally would if we were present face to face.
But the frustration of these situations highlights the importance of being present bodily. When we cannot be present bodily, it is important at least to be as present mentally, emotionally, or spiritually as we are able.
Most people call home when traveling. This does not replace being home together to tuck "littles" into bed. It's the best we can do given the circumstances. On the flip side, it makes us long to return home so we can say "this is my body" in all the regular ways.
Nothing can replace the Eucharist in our lives just as nothing can replace being face to face with family. In this period of absence, we must do the best we can.
While we must be absent from the altar and do not have the opportunity to add our "Amen" to "This is my body," let us pray that absence will make our hearts grow fonder. When we are able to return to the altar to offer genuine worship, we will long all the more to say, "Amen, at last I am present, too," when Christ, through the priest, says "This is my body!"
Resources for practicing your faith
Our own diocese (Diocese of St. Petersburg) has already published a quick list of ideas and resources: https://www.dosp.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Suggestions-.pdf
Other resources include:
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has a coordinating webpage: https://www.flacathconf.org/covid-19-response
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a page of suggestions and resources: http://www.usccb.org/.
Dr. Thomas Humphries Jr. is an associate professor in Saint Leo University's Department of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, and holds a mandatum in the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, FL. He also service as a volunteer district chief for Pasco County Fire Rescue.
Humphries holds a bachelor's degree from University of the South; a master's degree from Catholic University of America; and a doctorate from Emory University.