Pope Francis gives his homily during Mass April 28, 2020, in the chapel of his Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Editorial: Virtual dangers

  • April 30, 2020

It’s not every day the Pope is thankful to be “scolded” by one of his bishops but, of course, these are not ordinary days.

To his credit, Pope Francis took a recent rebuke from an unnamed bishop to heart. Now it’s our turn to listen because the bishop’s words apply to anyone tempted to think a virtual Church, like online shopping or banking, might suffice after health agencies and governments finally give a thumbs up to resuming our normal lives.

Becoming comfortable with recorded or live-streamed Masses from empty churches, or becoming satisfied with spiritual communion, “is dangerous,” the Pope said. “This is not the Church.” 

His comments came after he reflected on a letter received from a bishop who bristled at the notion of Easter Mass in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica. In the Pope’s words, the bishop “scolded him” and caused him to contemplate deeply the pandemic phenomenon of Mass without a congregation. 

What he came to understand more fully was the potential danger of people adopting television and Internet media to replace physical interaction with the sacraments and with each other. It is one thing to buy groceries, pay bills or study remotely but quite another to be lulled into a spiritual complacency that concludes there is such a thing as a virtual Church.

The Church, said the Pope, “is always with the people and with the sacraments — always.” 

We all owe our gratitude to the many people who reacted almost overnight to church closures by implementing Internet solutions that allow millions of home-bound Catholics worldwide to view Sunday and weekday Masses. They gave us some semblance of Holy Week and Easter celebrations. But virtual Masses and acts of spiritual communion — however welcomed they are amid no alternative — are artificial assemblies of faith communities and pseudo engagements with the Eucharist. 

They are not the Church, said the Pope, and it is spiritually unhealthy to grow accustomed to praying this way. But the longer that churches remain closed, the greater becomes that danger.

As the world emerges from the pandemic and governments start to allow normal public activities, it is important that churches reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. After all, if playing golf will soon be permitted in Ontario, permitting some reasonable access to Mass, even if there are limitations, should be achievable.

No doubt, bishops are planning for a gradual return of public Mass, the sacraments and other parish activities. Most likely, the return to normal Church life will be phased in. We’re unlikely to wake up one morning to find church doors swung wide open.

Closing churches in March was prudent and establishing virtual alternatives was proper, but the bishop who wrote to the Pope is right. There is no such thing as virtual religion or a virtual Church. 

The sooner this ends, the better.

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