Mass, Interrupted

Longing for the Eucharist in a Time of Exile

When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was pronounced a pandemic in March 2020, bishops around the world began to suspend the public celebration of Mass. Soon after, secular media mistakenly reported that “Mass is suspended” and even that “Easter is canceled.” Equally unfortunate is that many dioceses have announced that Masses will be “private” or “without a congregation.” While many parishes have been broadcasting their liturgies on television and the internet — and have kept their doors open for private devotion — it is not at all clear that the faithful have been tuning in to the respective media. Perhaps The Most Reverend Mario Delpini, Archbishop of Milan, has correctly described the situation when he preached recently a Mass that was broadcasted:

The difference between participating in the Mass in the church and watching it on TV is like the difference between sitting next to a bonfire that warms up, illuminates, brings joy, and watching a picture of the fire.1

Clearly, the Archbishop’s perspective applies to those who express a deep love for and understanding of the Mass.

On the other hand, it could be a case similar to observations from late author Father Gerry Weber, who identified a large sample of people who are ambivalent or even resentful about attending Mass. “In effect, we will be brushing aside the gift [of a place in the heavenly banquet] being set before us before it is offered. The ritual and the poetry of the language will have no impact on us. We will seldom, if ever, participate in any way, shape or form.”2 It might appear obvious that those “on the fence” toward the liturgy would benefit from a wake-up call to realize the gift of the Eucharist and ignite their hunger for it. Jesus sternly warned against apathy about such apathy: “because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you from my mouth” (Rev 3:16). Perhaps less apparent, though, is the effect this Eucharistic deprivation exerts on those who already love Mass. In a world of telecommuting and live streaming, they might forget that they are not at the banquet, neither warmed nor illuminated by the bonfire, as Archbishop Delpini puts it. In either case, Catholics globally face a sobering reality during this pandemic, that God has permitted an imposed Lenten sacrifice of the highest order.3 We as a community must temporarily forfeit our reception of the Real Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood at Mass.

With these diverging views in mind, I hope to spark or sustain an impatient anticipation of the faithful’s return to the Eucharist by offering two vital theological ideas about the Mass.

The first traces the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life back to its biblical root. The second reminds the Catholic faithful of the normative necessity for their active participation in the liturgical celebration. Taken together, these teachings could provide a template for fruitful preaching during this time of social and spiritual distancing that will bring about both a deep longing to receive our Lord at Communion once again and a rejuvenated desire to enter into relationship with the Trinity.

To begin, as Archbishop Delpini and Fr. Weber both note, we ground our expectations from the liturgy in the way that we approach the Mass. Their insightful commentaries call to mind the words of St. Irenaeus: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church demonstrates that the Eucharist’s “inexhaustible richness” cannot be contained in just one name for it. Thus, Catholics rightly call it a memorial, a sacrifice, a communion, and a Mass, among other; no single name exhausts its abundance of meaning.4

For these reasons, Vatican II teaches in Lumen Gentium that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life” as well as the sign of our unity. Whence comes this idea about the sacrament as “fount and apex,” as it is sometimes translated? I find two clues in the document regarding this teaching. First, we should note that the Dogmatic Constitution’s discussion of the sacraments occurs in Chapter II under the heading, “The People of God.” That section briefly summarizes salvation history, starting with the people of Israel and culminating in the Body of Christ. The Council Fathers recapitulate this rich history with repeated references to body, flesh, and spirit, of both Christ and of His people.5 At the same time, they contrast the role of the ministerial priesthood with that of the priesthood of the faithful, all the while insisting that both participate in the one priesthood of Christ. The lay faithful also join in the offering of the Eucharist. The laity, with the proper spiritual disposition and sufficient virtuous striving, can “consecrate the world itself to God.”6

The second clue is found in the footnote that accompanies the “source and summit” teaching. Here, the Council Fathers draw from Pope Venerable Pius XII’s encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, particularly his understanding of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist:

Along with the Church, her Divine Founder is present at every liturgical function. Christ is present at the august sacrifice of the altar both in the person of His minister and above all under the Eucharistic species. He is present in the sacraments, infusing into them the power which makes them ready instruments of sanctification. He is present, finally, in the prayer of praise and petition we direct to God, as it is written: “Where there are two or three gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20, Douay).7

This oft-cited teaching about the Eucharist, which appears today in the Catechism, comes from an Ecumenical Council’s 1964 Dogmatic Constitution regarding the Church, which adopts the perspective of a 1947 encyclical on the Liturgy by Pius XII, who cites directly from the Gospel of Matthew. Not only can we discern the biblical root of this vital understanding of the Eucharist, but we can also trace the line of Sacred Tradition from Christ’s teachings to the Church’s practices.

Even more interesting, Pius XII goes on to declare that the liturgy is both the “public worship” which Christ our Head renders to the Father and “communal worship” that the faithful renders to its Founder. The Mass, then, is “the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members.8 The venerable Pontiff’s insight here serves as an appropriate segue to the second part of this essay.

Turning now to the necessary participation of the Eucharistic assembly, I should begin with a few notes of caution to avoid any misunderstanding about the scope of this discussion. As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles wisely points out, the ritual offerings become the body and blood of the risen Christ for us. The sacrifice of the Mass consists neither in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine nor with the consumption of the consecrated Host or precious Blood. Instead, he writes: “What counts in God’s eyes is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which . . . is present in the Eucharist. There is no need to look beyond the Cross for some additional sacrifice.”9 The priest, then, acts not on his own authority but by Jesus Christ’s call and the Holy Spirit’s anointing. Moreover, the congregation offers its own sacrifice of prayer and action, with each one bringing his or her needs and sufferings to offer to God, along with the priest’s sacred oblation. Further still, the consecration of the Host includes the universal Church on earth and in heaven, and “united with the offering and intercession of Christ” at the foot of the cross.10


Therefore, we can now offer a rejoinder to the late Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani’s complaints about Eucharistic Prayer III, where the priest prays: “ . . . and You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to Your Name (emphasis added). He objected to the phrase “so that” because it appears that the people, rather than the priest, are the “indispensable element” in the celebration.11 Cardinal Ottaviani is correct in his complaint about the phrase “so that” insofar as it indeed implies that the people have somehow usurped the clergy’s privileged role in offering the Mass. Obviously, this view is incorrect, and I am grateful for his welcomed insight to that effect. Nevertheless, he wrongly asserts that the priest alone supplies this crucial role. The Church teaches that Christ alone is the indispensable Element, Who is present when we gather in worship.12

Similarly, the Council’s documents speak of the faithful’s “active participation” in the liturgy. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recognizes, the term holds an unfortunate connotation of “participation” as general activity, sometimes taken to mean that each one plays an isolated part. By contrast, the whole of liturgical action, Benedict argues, is that God draws humanity into cooperation with Himself through what Christ has already done from the Incarnation to the Resurrection, and what He will continue to do until the Parousia.

In this real “action,” in this prayerful approach to participation, there is no difference between priests and laity . . . But participation in that which no human being does, that which the Lord himself and only he can do — that is equally for everyone. In the words of St. Paul, it is a question of being “united to the Lord” and thus becoming “one spirit with him.”13, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 174 (citing 1 Cor 6:17).]

As St. Paul mentions elsewhere, we are all different parts of the same Body, and need one another to flourish (1 Cor 12:12–30).

Furthermore, because we are both one body and one spirit in Christ, we worship as a united community. Once more, the Council reminds us that liturgy is not a private function, but a celebration by and for the whole Church. Today’s urgent realities necessitate “individual or quasi-private” worship, but we must remember that this situation is not the norm, nor should it come to replace our local Eucharistic assembly.14 The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian life, but it would be a low peak if all of the living stones were permanently scattered.

Finally, let us return to Matt 18 and its context in order draw out further meaning. The entire chapter focuses on sin and forgiveness, but verse 20 concludes Jesus’ teaching about the community’s authority to police itself and His call to forgive one another abundantly. On the surface, it would seem out of place to use this verse as the foundation for so prominent a lesson about the Eucharist. Yet, we realize that forgiveness and reconciliation remain essential themes throughout the Mass.

Catholics are transformed as a community through the liturgy. In the Introductory Rites, for instance, we call to mind our sin and offer praise to God. In hearing the Word, God visits us, too.15 In fact, the Liturgy of the Word prepares us to recognize Christ in the “breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:30–32). Seen in this light, perhaps we might recognize that we have not been deprived of the Word. Could hearing the Scriptures proclaimed continue to stoke the “burning” within our hearts as we await the Communion with our Lord in the Eucharist?

In the Offertory, we bring to the altar simple gifts: bread, water, wine, and contrite hearts. In the Communion, we share a sign of Christ’s peace, and only then, take within ourselves the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. At last, nourished in Word and Sacrament, we are sent forth to love and serve the Lord in thanksgiving for all the He has done for us. In short, we are called to transform the world, for we have been transformed by the Eucharist’s “massive infusion of grace,” which is required to enter into the life of the Trinity.16 As we continue to contain the spread of COVID-19 by distancing ourselves from one another, we also long for that blessed moment when, once again, we will be called to the Supper of the Lamb.

  1. Jason Horowitz, “Fear of Coronavirus Leaves the Faithful without Mass in Italy’s North,” The New York Times, March 1, 2020;
  2. Gerard P. Weber, Eucharist: A View from the Pew (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001), 8.
  3. I gratefully acknowledge my friend and colleague Dr. Ian Murphy for this apt description of our current situation.
  4. Quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 1328–32.
  5. Lumen Gentium, para. 9.
  6. Lumen Gentium, paras. 10, 34.
  7. Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 20 (emphasis added).
  8. Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 20.
  9. Avery Dulles, “The Eucharist as Sacrifice,” in Rediscovering the Eucharist: Ecumenical Conversations, ed. Roch Kereszty (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 183.
  10. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 1368, 1370.
  11. Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, Antonio Cardinal Bacci, et al., Short Critical Study of the New Order of Mass (Rockford: TAN Books and Publishers, 1992), 45–46 (emphasis his). N.B.: With the changes to the English translation of the Missal in 2011, some of the thornier issues might now be clearer, notwithstanding the main thrust of the Cardinal’s argument (that the Mass should never have changed since the time of Trent, see pp. 54–55).
  12. See also the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7 (which also references Mt 18:20).
  13. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [Benedict XVI
  14. Sacrosanctum Concilium, paras. 26–27; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1140.
  15. Dei Verbum, 21.
  16. Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper (New York: Image, 1999), 152.
Dr. Dennis W. Feltwell About Dr. Dennis W. Feltwell

Dennis Feltwell is Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Retention Services at Pasco-Hernando State College in Dade City, FL and Adjunct Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN. He also serves as a Catechist for St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Tampa. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and an MA in Theology from LaSalle University in Philadelphia.


  1. Avatar Deacon James Stagg says:

    So many distraught voices in this HPR issue mourn the “absence” of a congregation for the “dedicated” priest to who is now directed to say DAILY Mass, who DOES receive Holy Communion, who DOES receive Sanctifying Grace (if his soul is so disposed), who must “put on a show” for his television audience, who receives NOTHING in return for their watching, outside of the graces attached to any pious activity like saying the Rosary or reading the Bible. Did you hear me right? “Watching” the Mass on TV comes nowhere close to ATTENDING the Mass, even if one had to kneel outside the locked church door on the stone steps. The quote from Archbishop Delpini is so true:
    “The difference between participating in the Mass in the church and watching it on TV is like the difference between sitting next to a bonfire that warms up, illuminates, brings joy, and watching a picture of the fire.”

    There is no earthly reason to avoid “public” Masses. Let’s face it: these days priests have NOTHING to do except provide the Sacraments. Same with deacons: deliver Holy Communion to those who cannot attend the communal celebration. Maybe it is dangerous to our health, but, we signed up to do just this (cf. Justin Martyr). You think the catacombs were “safe”?

    1. The USCCB and individual bishops dropped the ball initially when the “social distancing” crap was first discussed. There is no reason to allow the mingling of people at grocery stores and Walmart, and gas stations, for cryin’ out loud, and prevent more than TEN people attending a religious service. The bishops, maybe delayed to obtain prudent statistics, should have immediately protested the First Amendment violation….even taking it to federal court.

    2. The bishops could have compromised on a more reasonable number, based on the capacity (Fire Marshall) of each church. We have a relatively small parish, which is filled (as usual) only three times a year, Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter.: maybe 320 plus a few more. Out of the 320, you remove seating availability for 3/4 of the seats, providing at least 6 feet of spacing between congregants. So a reasonable number for a Mass now might be 80 people……maybe 100 with temporary chairs in back. The ONE priest we have then sets a schedule: two Masses per day (including Sundays), one morning, one evening, or even three a day with an additional one at noon. Simplify the Mass: minimal homily (one paragraph) no music; a capella singing……with distribution of Holy Communion, 40-45 minutes tops.

    3. Remember, this is for a limited time; the priest can “afford” three hours a day (indefinitely) to perform the most sacred Sacrifice of the Mass for his parishioners. Okay, give him Thursday off to “rest”. That is still twelve to eighteen Masses per week @ 80 parishioners per Mass for a total of 960 to 1440 parishioners per week. Total registered parishioners 1148 (375 families). How many parishioners do we have attend Saturday Vigil plus two Masses Sunday? Usually about 800-900.

    4. Signing up the parishioners for Masses would be labor-intensive, but not impossible. Besides, such telephone contacts will re-establish the parish directory. I would suggest a calling list made up of randomly selected names (drawn from a fishbowl, anyone?), with a limit of 70 signed per Mass. The names must be checked by an usher at each Mass, picked from two signed up for that Mass (Hey, we are all in this together!). One server, one lector,(volunteers from signed-up ones), no EMHC’s. Priest ONLY distributes the Sacred Hosts. Extra people must wait, then allowed into Mass after the 70 are accounted for. Anyone who does not show is reconfirmed for the next week, or is deleted.

    5. And, while we are at it, let’s also schedule specific devotions for certain days of the week, all built around Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Say we have Rosary night on Monday, with Benediction. On Tuesday we have (historically) The novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help with Benediction which would be appropriate for this time. On Friday, we have Stations of the Cross, with Benediction. Sign up when called for Mass times.

    6. And, if we don’t have Mass each day at Noon, lets plan for one hour of adoration, Noon to one o’clock PM every day. Put people on their honor to observe the seating/number restrictions.

    All this COULD be done, maybe SHOULD have been done before now. To me, the denial of the Mass by the bishops could almost be described as sacrilegious.