​Epidemic and the Liturgical Reform

The Church reformed the liturgy at a moment of great optimism. The developed world was enjoying the long post-war boom. Seminaries were full. And new-fangled antibiotics and vaccination programs were sweeping away one major disease after another. It seemed time for a great big group hug.

It is not surprising to find that when medieval-style pestilence stalks the streets, the Church has to reach back into the past, before that brief gilded historical moment, for responses. The most obvious example is “spiritual communion”: the practice of uniting oneself in prayer to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, since one is not able to receive sacramentally. Our predecessors in the Faith used to do this at the great majority of the Masses they attended, either formally or informally, since they received Holy Communion only once or a few times a year. When I mentioned the practice as a response to the epidemic in a letter to the UK’s liberal Catholic weekly, The Tablet, the first response of one priest was ridicule. We wouldn’t, he wrote, have a “spiritual collection,” would we?1

He will have written his reply before public liturgies were suspended. I doubt he is laughing now. The crisis is forcing us to reconsider some of the assumptions of the last half century. Is there any point in making a spiritual Communion? Is there any point in celebrating Mass without the people? Must we act out the “Sign of Peace” with handshakes between everyone within 50 yards of each other, rather than make a focused spiritual connection with a ceremonial Kiss of Peace in the sanctuary? Is sharing saliva in the chalice among the congregation really a good idea? What exactly is gained by not adding exorcised salt to the holy water? Should the people, after all, be encouraged to take home blessed objects, holy water, and palms, to decorate their houses with blessed images of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints, and to wear scapulars and holy medals? Can Holy Communion be given outside Mass?

The claim, now very much disputed,2 that the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue is less hygienic than reception in the hand, has obscured the fact that the ancient liturgical tradition is in a number of ways more suited than the Ordinary Form to times of public health concern. It would be strange if it were not, as this tradition had to cope with such times repeatedly, in contrast to the cultural context of the twentieth-century reform. But there is more to it than a matter of outward ceremonies and practices. The more fundamental question is the balance of liturgical mentality, if we may speak of such a thing, between the social and supernatural dimensions of the liturgy.

Masses without the people are instinctively regarded as pointless by many Catholics today because they obviously have no social dimension: unless, in an attenuated way, through live-streaming. The idea that the celebration of Mass brings blessings on the whole Church, on the living and the living and dead, and is an act of worship for the glory of God, is one many Catholics today simply do not understand.

Holy Communion is re-focused, in this mentality, away from the reverence needed for the reception of the Living God under the sacramental signs, to an act of human communion: the social connection between members of the congregation. Instead of thinking about the need to be in a state of grace, or spiritual preparation and thanksgiving, those caught up in this way of thinking want to make it as much as possible like an ordinary meal: greeting people with a handshake, facing one’s host across a table, picking up bits of food with the fingers, sharing from the same batch of prepared food, and accompanying this with a drink. In theological reality, while the Mass is a meal, from the Last Supper onwards it has been a ritual meal: a meal focused on supernatural realities, not social or nutritional ones.

The making of the Mass as much like an ordinary meal and social interaction as possible was intended, by many supporters of the liturgical reform, to facilitate the transformation of the ordinary world by the values inculcated by the Mass. One difficulty this plan has encountered is that the most emphasized values are now natural, rather than supernatural: in the approving words of one official document from the 1970s, valores humani, as opposed to valores Christiani.3 The former liturgical tradition made the Mass something mysterious and supernatural with exactly the same end result in view: the transfer of these values to the faithful and to the world. The Faithful responded by bringing something of the numinous liturgical atmosphere back into their own homes by the use of blessed objects, and in their domestic liturgical and paraliturgical devotions. The supernatural values of the Mass permeated the home, and made Mass linger, so to speak, throughout the working week.

This is a matter of emphasis, rather than a denial by either side of the less emphasized values, but the emphasis is strong enough to have an effect on the faith of the people, and to appear to validate some of the more recent errors of the learned. The shift of emphasis was systematically rolled out in the liturgical reform, and it was only by a sort of diplomatic politeness that official documents could in later decades feign surprise that, for example, priests had stopped celebrating private Masses,4 and popular devotions and the use of blessed objects had almost completely disappeared from swathes of Catholic culture.5

In reality, over the decades since the reform it appears that a certain proportion of the faithful, even those who make it to Mass, have ceased to believe the supernatural claims of the Catholic Faith. Most famously, a Pew study found that only half of self-identified Catholics believe in the Real Presence.6 Why do such people still attend Mass? Alongside of the force of habit, they must value the social aspect of the liturgy, which may have particular importance for those of a more advanced age. This hypothesis is supported by the large number of Mass-goers who lapse when Mass times change and churches close, rather than moving to another time slot or church. If the social network which their regular Mass represents is disrupted, such nominal Catholics cease to have a sufficient reason to attend.

It is a cruel fate, in this context, that has suddenly and almost completely, though let us hope temporarily, deprived the liturgy of its social value. How many of the Catholics whose attendance depends on this social value will return to regular practice after the epidemic ends will, no doubt, depend on how long it lasts. More robust, in this situation, is a form of liturgical participation which is interior and spiritual. The dramatic and touching ceremony of the Pax in the Missa Solemnis of the Extraordinary Form has the celebrant kiss the Altar and embrace the deacon, and then the deacon the subdeacon, and then the subdeacon the master of ceremonies. The congregation participates spiritually, though separated from these proceedings by the altar rail, or possibly even a rood screen: they will find it easier to participate in it still more remotely, through a live-streamed Mass, than those who find a social connection in the handshake of the Ordinary Form. In the same way, the faithful who see the reception of Holy Communion in firmly supernatural terms, will miss it, certainly, if they cannot get it, but will be able to find a lesser, but still satisfying, way of engaging with the spiritual reality at a distance. Those whose liturgical orientation prompts them to make the Mass as much of a human meal as possible, will not so easily find substitutes: or at least, substitutes which involve the Faith.

The increasing emphasis on Mass as a meal began long before the Second Vatican Council. A major step in this direction was moving the reception of Holy Communion back into Mass, in the early decades of the twentieth century. For many centuries prior to this, Communion had been distributed outside Mass, and commonly (as the frequently of reception increased with the waning of the influence of Jansenism), between Masses. There is a parallel between this development, and the later encouragement of the distribution of Hosts consecrated at the same Mass, rather than those consecrated earlier and stored in the tabernacle. The meal symbolism is served by both changes. What may be lost is the sense of the eternity and singleness of the Mass and the Victim.

I have no strong personal objection to either historical development, but it is a fact that today the reception of Holy Communion outside Mass is once again going to become the norm, at least for a time. It seems that for many Catholics the very idea of reception outside Mass, except for the hospitalized and housebound, has become difficult to imagine, and much of the push-back against the banning of Mass with a congregation appears derive from the idea that if we cannot attend Mass, then we will not be able to receive Communion. Indeed, so difficult has this been to imagine that many bishops and priests have failed to note that this remains a possibility, and one where the risk of infection can be managed in all sorts of ways: by limiting the number of communicants, if necessary to one; by the priest cleansing his fingers before and after the ceremony; by performing the ceremony outside, or in a controlled environment; and so on.

Clearly, a carefully controlled approach to distributing Holy Communion outside Mass will place a limit on the numbers able to receive, and even on the most optimistic view Catholics will have to get used to another aspect of standard past practice: infrequent Communion. Today, not only is Communion outside Mass hard to imagine, but for many Catholics so is attendance at Mass without the reception of Communion. This implies a casual attitude towards the reception of Holy Communion which perfectly accords with the placing of the meal-symbolism ahead of other considerations, but is not a positive development from other points of view.

It certainly would not have been the way I would have chosen to do it — I have previously argued for the restoration of a longer Eucharistic fast7 — but the enforced infrequency of Holy Communion will do much to restore the fame eucharistica, “eucharistic hunger,” the lack of which Pope John II so lamented.8 It is to be hoped that priests will encourage the Faithful who are able to receive less frequently to make the most of it when it is possible, by careful preparation, ideally including fasting, an act of perfect contrition (or, if possible, sacramental Confession), and prayer, and to follow it with a serious thanksgiving.

It is dangerous to speculate too early about the long-term consequences of the current epidemic, but it will certainly have some. It seems likely that among them will be a shedding of the naivety about hygiene which characterizes modern liturgical practice. It is to be hoped that this will be accompanied by a restoration of a more acute awareness of spiritual realities, and of the practices which have historically served to nurture that awareness.

  1. Fr. Sillience, ‘Letters,’ The Tablet, March 21, 2020.
  2. See the relevant guidelines of Archbishop Sample of Portland, OR, USA: d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/12494/documents/2020/3/Further%20Considerations%20March%202020.pdf and Archbishop Eguren of Piura, Peru: lmschairman.org/2020/03/sense-on-vovi-19-from-peru.html
  3. Congregation for Divine Worship Directory for Masses with Children (1973), 9: ‘These {human} values include the community activity, exchange of greetings, capacity to listen and to seek and grant pardon, expression of gratitude, experience of symbolic actions, a meal of friendship, and festive celebration.’
  4. Pope Benedict XVI Post-Synodal Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), §80.
  5. Congregation for Divine Worship, Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001), §1.
  6. See “Christian belief in and knowledge of Transubstantiation,” nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2010/10/christian-belief-in-and-knowledge-of.html.
  7. See Joseph Shaw, ed., The Case for Liturgical Restoration (2019), 173–81.
  8. Pope John Paull II, Letter Dominicae Cenae (1980), §11.
Dr. Joseph Shaw About Dr. Joseph Shaw

Dr. Joseph Shaw is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St. Benet's Hall, Oxford University. He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, Secretary of the Foederatio Internationalis Una Voce, and author of The Case of Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Studies on the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2019).


  1. Avatar John Lamont says:

    Dr. Shaw, you assert ‘This is a matter of emphasis, rather than a denial by either side of the less emphasized value’. I am afraid this is not the case, and your presentation is somewhat misleading in consequence. I leave aside the views of the actual drafters of the Novus Ordo, and consider instead the views of the ‘supporters of this reform’ you refer to, the supporters who have brought about the deleterious changes in Catholic belief in the Real Presence that you rightly deplore. The objections to private masses and spiritual communion that are raised by these supporters come from priests who reject the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence. Their rejection is based for the most part of the thought of theologians such as Piet Schoonenberg and Edward Schillebeeckx, who propose a theory of ‘transsignification’ that rejects transubstantiation, and that makes the presence of the congregation essential to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. A sample of this view is this passage from Monika Hellwig, an academic employed in the theology faculty at Georgetown; ‘In breaking it and giving it to them, he says: “Take and eat, for this is my body.” It has generally been assumed that this was intended to mean, “This bread is my body,” and that the task of interpretation was concerned with what is meant by equating the two. Scholars have, however, suggested that it more probably was intended to mean that his action of blessing, breaking, sharing and eating in such an assembly in his name and memory was to be seen as the embodiment of the presence and Spirit and power of Jesus in the community.’ These views are taught to seminarians as true in most seminaries; indeed dissent from them will get a seminarian expelled in the more progressive seminaries. Acceptance of these heterodox views explains the actions of the ‘supporters of the liturgical reform’ in rejecting private masses, spiritual communions, and devotions based on belief in the Real Presence. The prevalence of these views among priests explains why Catholics have largely lost their belief in the Real Presence; they have lost it because their priests, acting on what they were told in the seminary, have taught them to reject it. I expect you know this as well as myself. It is a mystery to me why you choose to give the impression that the current state of affairs is a result of a ‘difference of emphasis’ among Catholics rather than unbelief among clergy and religious. Do you think it will be easier to persuade people to change, and to bring about a reform in belief and practice, if we pretend that we are all good Catholics together and that what is needed is for the more progressive wing to realize that it is trying to fulfil its good intentions – as e.g. ‘ the transformation of the ordinary world by the values inculcated by the Mass’ – by adopting more traditional practices, rather than by continuing with more modern approaches that have turned out not to work? I am afraid that is not the case, and that taking this approach exacerbates the problem rather than solving it. This approach is rather like the approach to ecumenism that says that Catholics and other Christians are really all believers together, and that Protestants are not denying divinely revealed truth, so that all that is needed is a better understanding rather than a real change of mind by Protestants. This approach misrepresents what Protestants are, and it backfires in its goal of bringing Protestants to the Church. The same result occurs within the Catholic Church when an irenic approach of this kind is adopted. Progressive theologians and priests know what they believe and what they want to do. Part of what they want to do is to eradicate belief in the Real Presence and any religious practices that promote or conform to this belief, because they consider that the belief is not only false but harmful to the true understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If you explicitly or implicitly deny this, you make it far easier for such persons to persuade Catholics to accept their heterodox convictions. Indeed in practice you have given the game away, because if it is accepted that these persons are advancing a legitimate Catholic position then belief in the Real Presence is not a doctrine of the faith. It does not help that you ignore their heterodoxy, because the audience for the disputes over the Eucharist can grasp what the heterodox side is saying, and it will reasonably take your acceptance of them as Catholics in good standing as an endorsement of the orthodoxy of their views.

    • Yes this theological approach certainly exists, but it has been condemned (eg by Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei) I was referring to a narrower range of attitudes compatible with orthodoxy.

  2. Avatar Gary Collins says:

    I think we should look at this matter from the Top, down.
    “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father”.
    This mass, almost total withdrawal of our ability to enter Churches, assisting at Mass, making confession etc – this has been allowed by Christ. We have been taught why He allows suffering, death, natural disasters, but this is different. This time the means of our salvation have been ‘rationed’ by Him. The question is why? The answer is simple – the last pastoral council has been a disaster. The resultant behaviour of the clergy has been destructive, and now a majority of our Catholic clergy and friends – if we be honest, and abandon any fear of speaking plainly – a majority of our Catholic clergy and friends in their hearts believe in something other than the Catholic Faith, but still use His real estate and clothing while they preach it. As much as modern Catholics feel enlightened by this pastoral council, Our Blessed Lord still owns the copyright to the Faith, and I think He has sent a warning that we are no longer going to be able to misuse His property for our own religion. What’s the future going to be like – the Resurrection I think. Now the Church is being battered and crucified by Her own thanks in part to that ‘wonderful’ pastoral council, but once Catholics en mass find out they have been hoodwinked, the Church will come back big time.
    In the meantime, any and all talk is a waste of time if we don’t even recognise the role of the pastoral council and it’s disastrous effects.

    • Avatar Father Khouri says:

      Wow, yes, all our problems stem from VCII. Never mind that a good portion of the perverted sexual behavior took place before the Council. These hideous sins were committed by priests offering or formed by the Pian Mass.
      I don’t know the kinds of priests you know or are friends with; they must be judas priests. Too bad you don’t know any faithful, devout priests, but then maybe you do but your hubris and nastiness clouded your mind.

  3. Avatar Rev. John R. Evans says:

    Dr. Shaw, thank you so much for such a clear assessment. I found it ironic hearing that a city in Poland had nineteen priests, and before the plague, only two public Masses daily, with seventeen priests concelebrating either Mass. Their response to this plague: nineteen public Masses daily to allow for social distancing….

  4. Avatar George says:

    Many, many people, Protestants and Catholics alike, go to church on Sunday mainly because they ache for community, or because they’re just crazy about their priest. Everything else is secondary. That is why many never come back after a priest is transferred or a parish closed. It is also why doctrine is irrelevant to most Catholics, and why even missing Mass on Sunday for trivial reasons is also common among them. I am talking about at least half the Catholics who regularly attend. This is my experience in the diocese of Richmond for more than 20 years.


  1. […] NC Register Live-streamed Masses in the Use of Lyon – Notkerus Balbulus at Canticum Salomonis ​Epidemic & the Liturgical Reform – Joseph Shaw, Ph.D., at Homiletic & Pastoral Review Covid-19, Consumerism, & Acedia […]

  2. […] As promised, here’s the smarter take from a slightly different angle, from  Joseph Shaw of the UK Latin Mass society on “Epidemic and Liturgical Reform.” […]

  3. […] Joseph ShawКрыніца: Homiletic & Pastoral ReviewІлюстрацыя: RStaparo / Wikimedia Commons […]

  4. […] reader alerted me to a fine article at HPR by Joseph Shaw of the UK’s Latin Mass Society.  He wrote something that pertains to my look, […]

  5. […] Henry VIII’s pulling down the rood screens. And, when the faithful did receive more often, it was (strangely enough) outside Mass, so that the idea of the consecrated Hosts being always alive, so to speak, the Body and Blood of […]