Michael Swan

Peter Stockland: Pandemic forces sacrifice of Mass

  • March 19, 2020

The Church in Quebec, many parts of Ontario and even in Rome appeared late last week to say “No Más” in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Technically, the bishops, in making a horrendously difficult call, said “No more Masses until further notice,” i.e., whenever civil health authorities sound the bell that tolls the all clear in the fight against the infectious virus that causes COVID-19.

Coming as it did amid an onslaught of epidemiological evidence that the contagion will only be contained by what amounts to a global quarantine, however, the suspension of Mass had the ring of boxer Roberto Duran’s cry in the eighth round of his 1980 whipping at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard. No Más. No more. With no way to effectively fight back, the prudent thing to do was to acknowledge the superiority of the foe — at least for now.

Given the integrality of Mass to Catholic life, “No Mass” did have the same shocking effect as No Más, albeit in a matter of infinitely greater seriousness. Giving up the crux of our liturgical life to the blunt force trauma of natural pestilence seemed, to a number of bewildered faithful I spoke with, too much like surrendering the gifts of the spirit to the plunder of the world. How could it seem any other way when, as Catholics, our lives are a reminder that attending at Mass is not some cherry-picked consumerist choice. 

In my own case, because of my interest studying all things Irish, I couldn’t help thinking, as well, of the courageous and tenacious priests and religious who risked and sacrificed their lives tending to hordes of typhus victims who overwhelmed Montreal and Toronto on Irish famine ships almost 175 years ago. Were they not one small historical example of the martyrdom to which the Church has always called her children?

No less than Pope Francis apparently seemed to think so since, as the Crux website reported, “less than 24 hours after the Diocese of Rome issued a decree closing all churches to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, officials walked that decision back, saying the about-face came out of a meeting” with the Holy Father.

“He prompted us to consider another need: That with the closure of our churches, other ‘little ones,’ this time of a different type, not find a reason for confusion and disorientation,” Crux quoted Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome. Francis expressed concern that closing churches would leave “people feeling even more isolated” during a time of what is being euphemistically called social distancing.

Yet much as I look to His Holiness for instruction, and much as I empathize with those feeling at sea over the suspension of Mass, it strikes me that there’s another way to see it. If Mass is central to our Catholic life, what is central to the Mass itself? It’s not a trick question. It’s not called the sacrifice of the Mass for nothing.

Mass is nothing if not sacrifice. Christ’s sacrifice first, last and always, obviously. But also our own sacrifices in imitation of Christ’s saving oblation on the cross. The whole Lenten season is a reminder that sacrifice comes in minute-by-minute spiritual variations as well as in the great full body offering of physical martyrdom. In early Christian Ireland, martyrdom was marked in different colours to differentiate degree.

So-called peregrini monks accepted “white” martyrdom, which did not involve the death of the individual but rather movement across the Irish Sea, leaving behind familiar places and comfortable ways. 

What the Church is asking of us, in the interests of our individual and community well-being, is far less than that, though in many ways still a potentially bewildering dislocation from the rituals at the heart of our faith. But in the eternal wisdom of the Church, the “No Más” of “No Mass” is not “giving up” in the sense of abruptly quitting the fight. It is about giving up, and even so only temporarily, the treasures to which were accustomed for the even greater reward of the spiritual gift of sacrifice for Christ. Call it Easter if that helps.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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