Once again, Christians around the world have observed the liturgical season of Lent under numerous restrictions imposed by efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Measures to prevent the spread of the disease have varied from nation to nation and even among regions, states and cities of each particular country. But there is hardly a place on earth where people have not had their patience pushed to the limit during these 14 or 15 (or is it now 16?) months that the pandemic has been raging.
While folks in the United States are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to what appears to be an effective vaccination campaign, here in Europe we’re still stuck in the gloom of uncertainty. The rollout of vaccines, let us say, has not been so good here on the Old Continent.
Pope Francis has noted that, at least here in Italy, we were shocked and badly shaken last year when we had to face our first Holy Week in lockdown. This year, he's said, the feeling is more one of exhaustion, of being worn out.
From a religious point of view, much of that sentiment is because the preventive measures have included the suspension of congregational worship or strict limits on how many people can gather in those places where churches are actually allowed to remain open.
And that it is tiresome when, for a second year in a row, we cannot celebrate Holy Week and Easter properly—or in the pre-pandemic manner.
Catholics, probably in a way more pronounced than those who belong to any other community in the one (though fractured) Church of Christ, feel a need—indeed, they are told it is their duty—to “attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.”
This, of course, is not a divine law or a scriptural injunction. It is human application of the third commandment in the Decalogue. And most religious authorities (i.e. the bishops) have exempted Catholics from the “obligation” during the pandemic.
And most Catholics have accepted this, not because they have been granted a dispensation to “skip” Mass without committing “grave sin,” but because they want to stop the spread of a potentially deadly virus.
But other believers (a minority, thank God) have denounced the restrictions on worship as a violation of religious freedom.
In Poland, where new cases of infection are currently skyrocketing to their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, the Catholic bishops are insisting that churches be to allowed to stay open. “Leaving churches open is extremely important, because a person is not only a body, but also a soul," said Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the national episcopal conference. “And prayer – especially in moments of trials and hardships – strengthens us on the path to salvation,” he added.
Perhaps the archbishop skipped Mass on Ash Wednesday. It’s possible, since this is not a Holy Day of Obligation. Or perhaps he forgot the Gospel passage for the day’s liturgy (Mt 6,1-6;16-18), for it was many weeks ago. These lines in this passage—the one with which the Church began the Lenten Season—are worth recalling: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Mt 6, 5-6).
I'm not sure how those verses are translated in Polish, but the archbishop will recognize them in the Vulgate:
Et cum oratis, non eritis sicut hypocritae, qui amant in synagogis et in angulis platearum stantes orare, ut videantur ab hominibus. Amen dico vobis: Receperunt mercedem suam. Tu autem cum orabis, intra in cubiculum tuum et, clauso ostio tuo, ora Patrem tuum, qui est in absondito; et Pater tuus, qui videt in abscondito, reddet tibi.
The bottom line is that one does not have to go to church to pray. And in times of pandemic, there are very good reasons why one should not do so.
That there are bishops and priests—and other baptized faithful—who see “temple worship” as absolutely essential, in all circumstances, to what it means to be a faithful Christian, is indictment on their vision of Church. It is but hollow shell. The phrase the Nazarene used was “whitewashed sepulcher.”
It is a Church that puts considerable emphasis on the externals—its impressive buildings; its well-funded projects; its rules and precepts; its legal statutes and its “power” to summons people to Mass each Sunday.
We must admit that we all buy into this exact type of Church to some degree or another. And, so, it is to all of us that Pope Francis has placed the challenge of conversion—the need to change our attitudes, our mentality.
These past many months of “liturgical lockdown” should be seen within the context of the pope’s challenge. Have we used this time to discover our “inner room” our own cubiculum? Most presbyters and bishops have been incapable or uninterested in helping Catholics develop that inner room into a place of true worship and not just some second-class waiting room until churches are opened and Mass can be celebrated.
In fact, our “cultic priests” have only been able to “say Mass” for us on social media or television, allowing us to watch them perform true liturgy.
This has certainly been one of the biggest missed opportunities and saddest spectacles of clericalism in the post-Vatican II period. But not all Catholics have fallen into this clericalist trap. More and more have taken Matthew 6:6 to heart and have discovered that church is not the only place (and perhaps not even in the most important one) where we go to pray and deepen our faith. They’ve discovered that true religion and true worship can also be experienced at Saint Cubiculum’s.
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.