Has COVID-19 resulted in a sacramental as well as economic recession? What is the relationship between the sacraments and our salvation?
By Ryan Bilodeau
21 May 2020
These days it seems like we are undergoing as much of a sacramental recession as we are an economic one. At a time when COVID-19 has rendered our priests’ public appearances relegated mostly to television, debates about how to deal with this crisis are being waged among Catholic bloggers and Bishops alike.
Has the course we are on been a prudent one, or are we placing temporal concerns over spiritual ones? In the case of the sacraments, are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater or are our current protocols a very reasonable response to the virus?
Answers to these questions and others have created a rift of late among Catholics. What makes the answers especially challenging to arrive at with certainty is due in part to our understanding of the relationship between the sacraments and our salvation. As Catholics, we believe both that we are an incarnational church and also one which affirms God’s ability to confer grace through means other than the sacraments. In fact, this nuance is explicitly pointed out when in the Catechism it is declared that:
God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.CCC 1257
So how do we as the Catholic Church settle this debate when it is occurring in unprecedented times and against the backdrop of sacramental policies that have been fluctuating from diocese to diocese? The answer lies in a proper theological understanding of the nature of the Mass and the graces flowing from it.
In The Faith Explained, speaking about the power of the Mass even if some of the faithful should not receive the Eucharist for some reason, Leo Trese reminds us that “The Mass itself, even without Holy Communion, is a limitless source of grace for every member of Christ’s mystical body who is already spiritually alive.” Mr. Trese’s explanation accounts for why a priest celebrating Mass in private still ushers in heaven and “is a mysterious participation in the heavenly liturgy” whether the congregation is sitting in a pew in church or on a couch at home. In fact, the Catechism points out further that:
[I]n the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body.CCC 1368
We are actually present and united to the priest during the sacrifice of the Mass by virtue of our baptism.
No matter where you stand on the change in liturgical policies over the last two months, we can all agree that the imminent reopening of parishes in a way that protects the health of parishioners is a positive development. In the meantime, God’s sacramental grace is still entering the world whether or not we are physically present within the church when it does. You and I have been in the spiritual desert for several months now. As churches reopen, let us continue to unite our prayers to those of our parish priest so that we too can spiritually benefit from the presence of heaven on earth in the Mass.
Ryan Bilodeau is a high school theology teacher, author and homeless advocate in New Hampshire who just launched a Catholic app called Catholic Cases. He spent his collegiate years working on local and national political campaigns and non-profits before going on to grad school and earning an M.T.S. in Theology. Ryan is a big fan of New England sports, and can be followed on Twitter or his website.