Liturgical Lessons from the Pandemic


The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in many parts of the world has demanded swift and comprehensive adjustments to the daily life of the Church. Disruptions in the way we celebrate the sacraments, offer catechesis, and perform the works of mercy have been particularly challenging. The faithful and their leaders are to be commended for the creativity and zeal with which they have responded. Although this crisis is not yet behind us, it is possible already to discern ways in which present conditions are reminding us of important truths about the Church’s liturgical life. Seven such points for reflection are considered below.

Catholic Worship Is Always Communal

Worshiping God entails intimacy with him. In public worship (i.e., the liturgy), the very act of worshiping establishes communion among fellow believers. This is especially evident in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is always the sacrifice of the Church.1 The twentieth-century theologian Yves Congar goes so far as to write that the Church “is the subject of liturgical acts.”2 Thus, even a Mass offered “privately” is always a public and communal act, involving the collaboration of the wider Church and capable of strengthening the bonds of fellowship among the community of believers, among the communion of saints, and with God himself. Present conditions, though not ideal, can deepen our awareness of these spiritual realities.

Digital Worship Has Limits

Virtual gatherings of the faithful have proliferated since the beginning of this pandemic, drawing people into the Mass, the rosary, retreats, Stations of the Cross, Divine Mercy novenas, and many other devotions. While these efforts have proven fruitful to a certain extent, they nevertheless fall well short of desirable conditions. The full, conscious, and active participation3 envisioned by the leaders of the Liturgical Movement simply cannot be fully engaged apart from personal presence. This much seems self-evident to anyone who has taken part in the virtual events generously offered by many parishes and dioceses.

Implicit in this point, of course, is the competing truth that there are, indeed, some possibilities with respect to digital worship. The potential for digitally mediated liturgy has been explored in depth by Teresa Berger in her recent book, @Worship.4 The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted pastoral leaders to maximize the effectiveness of their digital outreach even as the limitations of such efforts have become clearer. Just as a video chat with one’s grandchildren is wonderful, but not as good as an in-person visit, so there is something worthwhile but nonetheless incomplete in our attempts to pray communally via digital platforms.

All Church Is Local

The saying usually goes that “all politics are local.” This pandemic has underscored how much a similar sentiment applies to the Church. Encounters with the Church occur, first and foremost, locally. Parishes and schools, hospitals and nursing homes are our front lines, the essential points of contact where the faithful experience the Church. That so many of the faithful prefer to livestream the Mass offered at their own parish demonstrates this. Although many online resources of excellent quality are available at the regional and national levels, the most fundamental engagement interest remains, for most Catholics, at the level of their local faith community. People know their parish, their priest, their pew neighbors. The personalism of the Church is a rich blessing and strength — one, perhaps, that current circumstances invite us to appreciate anew.

Sacramental Life Is Necessary for True Life

Participation in the sacramental life of the Church, beginning with Baptism, is essential for true life. This does not mean that there are no circumstances in which public liturgical celebrations may rightly be suspended for a time.5 The suffering associated with separation from the sacraments, however, testifies to their importance. It also unites us with numerous saints who shared in the same suffering for a time.6

Christ came to offer living water (Jn 4:10 and 7:38). He came, also, to grant us life — abundant life (Jn 10:10). Paul preached emphatically to the Athenians at the Areopagus, proclaiming the centrality of Christ for human flourishing: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, NABRE). Whatever anguish we experience as a result of present restrictions on liturgical life is not wasted. It serves, at least, as evidence that we have found real nourishment in Christ.

The Life of the Church Demands More
than Sacraments

Sacraments are absolutely central to the Church, as they are privileged moments of encounter with Christ the Lord, who instituted them. It can happen, however, that one falls into frequenting the sacraments without simultaneously engaging in any of the other buttresses of the Christian life, such as meditation, spiritual reading, and charitable outreach. Confronted with the inaccessibility of the sacraments, such a person is likely lost for what to do. Mass, notably, is to be the source and summit of the whole Christian life,7 not its one and only expression.

This pandemic thus presents an extraordinary evangelization opportunity. It challenges us to renew our parish churches and our domestic churches, ensuring that a robust sacramental life is surrounded and supported by an equally vital participation in such important aspects of ecclesial life as devotions, Scripture study, and acts of service. As the Letter of James admonishes us, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27).

The Liturgy of the Hours Remains Too Little Known

An earnest goal of the Second Vatican Council was to encourage the praying of the Divine Office more widely among the faithful.8 Whatever gains have been made, it remains clear that many Catholics are unfamiliar with the Liturgy of the Hours. This unrealized potential is felt acutely right now, when praying the Liturgy of the Hours would be a praiseworthy way for families to participate in the official liturgy of the Church, despite the unavailability of other liturgical forms.

This is an area in which digital resources could readily benefit the Church, since various apps make the Liturgy of the Hours freely accessible and intelligible to people who might be intimidated by the price and manifold ribbons of a printed breviary.9

God Is Good

Even in the midst of a situation fraught with suffering and death, fear and inconvenience, God continues to bestow his grace. He feeds his people. God is not, after all, bound by the constraints of a sacramental system. It is often during times of trial, in fact, that God shows himself to be immensely good, showering his beloved people with unexpected and unprecedented graces. Jeremiah knew this personally when he testified that “the LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; they are renewed each morning — great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22–23).

The next time we undergo some sort of trial, we would do well to remember the Lord’s fidelity to us in the midst of this pandemic. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who worked wonders in the land of Egypt, works wonders still in our day (c.f., Jer 32:20 and Mic 7:15).

Conclusion: Lifting Up Our Hearts

The distance that presently separates Catholics in so many parts of the world is real. We all feel it. And, yet, there is something that no distance can suppress and no diaspora can deny, namely our spiritual union in Christ. In the dialogue that beings the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest says, “Lift up your hearts,” and the people respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” In this exchange, we unite ourselves to one another, to all the saints, and to Christ himself. What can prevent Christians from that lifting up of our hearts on high, even when physically separated from the sacraments? “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38–39). Let our hearts, therefore, be on high!

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), no. 1368, p. 344.
  2. Yves Congar, “The Ecclesia or Christian Community as a Whole Celebrates the Liturgy,” in At the Heart of Christian Worship: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar, trans. and ed. Paul Philibert (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 16.
  3. Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4 December 1963, Acta Apostolica Sedes 56 (1964): nos. 14 and 48, pp. 104 and 113.
  4. Teresa Berger, @ Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds, Liturgy, Worship and Society Series (New York: Routledge, 2017).
  5. See Thomas Joseph White, “Epidemic Danger and Catholic Sacraments,” First Things (9 April 2020), online at firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/04/epidemic-danger-and-catholic-sacraments. White’s article was published at the invitation of the editor as a counterpoint to several of his own articles, including R.R. Reno, “Coronavirus Diary: New York, April 3–5,” First Things (6 April 2020), online at firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/04/coronavirus-diary-new-york-april-35.
  6. See, for example, David M. Friel, “Separated from the Sacraments: Stories from Walter Ciszek, SJ,” Views from the Choir Loft blog of Corpus Christi Watershed (22 March 2020), online at ccwatershed.org/2020/03/22/separated-from-the-sacraments-stories-from-walter-ciszek-sj/.
  7. Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 21 November 1964, Acta Apostolica Sedes 57 (1965): no. 11, p. 15.
  8. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 100, p. 124.
  9. For a description of several apps useful for praying the Liturgy of the Hours, see David M. Friel, “Praying the Divine Office This Lent,” Views from the Choir Loft blog of Corpus Christi Watershed (15 February 2015), online at ccwatershed.org/2015/02/15/praying-divine-office-lent/.
Fr. David M. Friel About Fr. David M. Friel

Rev. David M. Friel, STL is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, ordained in 2011. He is presently a doctoral candidate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He has published several articles on liturgy and aesthetics in Antiphon, Sacred Music, Adoremus Bulletin, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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