More than monuments are toppling. Our sense of the sacred diminishes further with each week that fear of Wuhan virus ranks higher on parish concerns than the concept of sin. Thomas Mann once quipped that nowadays sin is “an amusing word used only when one is trying to get a laugh.” Now we can get our laughs untainted by any nagging guilt right in our own parishes. They have risen from slumber over the concept of sin in order to testify with vigor to hygiene in the age of COVID.
Too many parishes are caricaturing themselves in a fevered attempt to outmaneuver a virus that does not give a fig for our efforts. An influenza virus is constantly mutating, reinventing itself to evade detection by our immune system. It will continue to transmute in one new revision after another until all its hosts are destroyed. That will take time. All the way to kingdom come, most likely. Meanwhile, we are earnestly in the process of doing the virus’ job for us. We are destroying ourselves.
The Eucharist in Housecoat and Slippers
Economic destruction we see all around us. We read more about it than we can bear; our own lives are touched by it. But that is not the demolition that concerns me here. Faith has an economy of its own. It is sustained by deference, by an enduring treasury of prompts to veneration. Choreographed to induce a taste for the numinous, liturgy is both carrier and custodian of those prompts. It bequeaths them down generations, reminding us that the mystery in which we participate is ultimately unutterable, irreducible to language. By contrast, so many contemporary parishes trivialize rituals in a rush to make them comfortable and practical. Even the Eucharist has been put into housecoat and slippers.
Consider Pax Christi Catholic Community, a self-consciously progressive parish in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. In a spasm of enlightened social distancing, it devised a virus-free method of distributing the Eucharist. To reduce time spent in an enclosed environment, communion was not distributed from the altar. Instead, individual consecrated hosts were laid out, each in its own small envelope, on a card table in the narthex. (Format mimicked the packaging of Nestle’s After Eight Thin Mint Chocolates. Each chocolate came in its own parchment sleeve to keep it from sticking to another.) Parishioners could take one for themselves after Mass, confident that the host was entirely sanitary.
But was it? Did each host get into its jacket in an antiseptic environment by a gloved and masked agent ? And had the paper been treated with a germicidal UV-C light before the host was inserted? What about the table top? Did the deacon disinfect it with a cordless sanitizing wand from Sharper Image? Was the narthex properly ventilated with a HEPA filter? No point asking. The raison d’être here was a zealous straining after redemptive hygiene, a contemporary absolute. Lost in the exercise was any hint of the Eucharist as a mystery to be approached in awe.
Someone videoed parishioners—all women in the scant clip I saw—picking up their take-away and dropping the envelope into a basket. Footage appeared very briefly on YouTube only to disappear in short order. As you can see, the link takes you to a blank page that tells you the video “has been removed by the uploader.” This is the second explanation for removal. The first, appearing within hours of the take-down, claimed the erasure was a Pax Christi copyright matter. That suggests the video had been taken by Pax Christi for broadcasting on the Live Stream Page of its website. An anonymous viewer—blessed, perhaps, with malice aforethought— uploaded the project to YouTube.
There is an outside chance Pax Christi had second thoughts about its prêt à manger Eucharist. But that is doubtful. Abstaining from traditional classification as church or parish, Pax Christi prefers to be known simply as a Catholic Community. Membership self-identifies as a “catalyst for systemic change;” it publishes reviews of its fine self on Facebook. A gatherum so self-regarding could easily be more attached to copyright issues than liturgical ones.
Jesus-to-go makes sense for world-changers in a hurry. At the same time, it makes hash of liturgical quotation from that ancient communal meal—taken in assembly with disciples—before the Passion. And in the shadow of the Cross.
Liturgical Piety is Under Assault by Safetyism.
The initial illustration on this page is not a prop from an old Monty Python skit. It is a real gadget-for-God sold by several liturgical supply houses. Another sterile end-run around Eucharistic custom, the contraption is easier to refill than the PEZ dispenser which it imitates. PEZ had to be refilled one lozenge at a time. Users of this handy thing need only insert a pre-filled cartridge of wafers. Wafers are sold alone, moving Slate‘s Ruth Graham to tweet: “And he took the No Contact Communion Host Dispenser, gave thanks and pulled the Gold Tone Dispenser trigger, saying: This is my body, sold separately.”
This “safe alternative” had been available from St. Patrick’s Guild in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and Catholic Supply of St. Louis, Inc. Both vendors are Catholic family-owned business servicing a Catholic clientele. Did diocesan authorities chastise the firms after getting wind of the thing? The Guild has removed it from their web page. Catholic Supply now offers a double aviso: NOT FOR CATHOLIC MASS and “For non-Catholic services only.”
A no-hands dispenser has been on the market for more than a decade. Early in 2011, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on germ scares, from hepatitis to swine flu, in various dioceses. It illustrated a similar contraption used in St. Agnes Church in Clark, New Jersey: “‘ There was a big concern about germs on the hands getting on stuff so we use the dispenser instead,'” said the Rev. Dennis Cohan of the system put in place a couple of years ago.” Another priest was quoted: “It gives people peace.”
Before posting the picture of the dispenser, I sent it around to friends. An inquiring priest wanted to know if it gives change. And what do you do if it jams? Another friend argued for the utility of a squirt gun for communion wine. In the end, when the joking subsided, there was left only a common sense of dismay.
Our own parishes are doing their best to contribute to the decreasing number of Catholics who profess belief in the Real Presence. Liturgical protocols—rubrics—are a silent form of catechesis. For good reason, liturgy has been called the school of Christian formation. Catholic worship traditions are rich in significant gestures. The incongruity of subjecting a stately, formal rite to improvisation diminishes the signifier to a vehicle for temporal concerns. In this instance, it signifies the priority of COVID over the Eucharist.
Chrism on a Q-Tip
This is not to say people ought not use good judgment and take sensible precautions appropriate to their age and the condition of their health. None of us wants to be sick or to compromise another’s well being. But COVID is dangerous— lethal—to only a very few. And these, in a distinct demographic. What matters here is the grotesque and unnecessary distortion of our worship lives in service to the pornography of media-induced panic. This is not the Black Death. It is not small pox, which killed one out of every three of its victims and scarred survivors. It is not cholera. Yet we are mandated to behave as if doom were at our door.
Consequently, things liturgical keep getting sillier.
A young family member finally made her COVID-delayed confirmation in mid-July. Social distancing required this year’s diocesan candidates to divvy up into mini-units. Since no bishop could attend them all, pastors were declared bishop-for-a-day. Fr. Mike entered the nave in a portentous black mask. Come time to anoint the confirmands, he exchanged his cloth covering for a full-face plexiglass shield. He looked like a dentist. (“A riveter,” said a cousin.)
How could he anoint foreheads with sacred chrism without touching a single head? Disposable Q-tips! The assistant pastor handed them to his boss one at a time while holding a bowl for contaminated discards. Medical waste?
Confirmation took place in a Chicagoland parish the day Black Lives Matter Chicago denounced white supremacy and passed sentence on the police. On the previous night rioters had attacked the police, sending several to the hospital. They tried to pull down the statue of Christopher Columbus in Chicago’s Grant Park. They demanded that all land east of Michigan Avenue be “rematriated“ to . . . whomever. Violent anarchy was in the air. It was a fitting day to tell fourteen and fifteen year olds, newly sealed in the Holy Spirit, of the sacramental grace needed to scythe their way through the unholy thickets ahead of them.
But no. Despite the gravity of civil order unraveling nearby, the pastor’s entire address, from opening soliloquy to homily, was about COVID. He asked: “How is COVID like the Holy Ghost?” Answer from the pews: It’s powerful and it’s everywhere. “How is COVID not like the Holy Ghost?” Responses followed pedestrian lines: one makes us sick, the other makes us strong. Fr. Mike instructed the “young theologians” to recite their baptismal promises in their “outside voice.” He liked the phrase enough to use it twice. (Twinned with inside voice, this is trendy argot for parents hesitant to shush a noisy toddler.) Overall, the ceremony was loose-fitting and cozy, not unlike a school pageant staged for parents pleased to see their child perform.
The animating tenor of the event illustrated James Hitchcock’s brief against a desacralized liturgy. Written nine years after the close of Vatican II, his Recovery of the Sacred notes this:
. . . unintentionally, the new liturgy seems designed to fit the new [post-WWII] middle class culture. It eshews formality, solemnity, and complexity in favor of a casual and utilitarian style. Years ago William Whyte noticed in The Organization Man  the tendency of many suburbanites to prefer non-dogmatic, ethically-oriented, community-service churches, and this trend has finally come to be felt within Catholicism.
The background which informed Whyte’s analysis has changed. So have the suburbs. What has endured, and spread, is user-friendly liturgical style that shies away from the stylized, ritual gestures that convey solemnity.
Leaving The Last Word To . . .
William M. Briggs is a polymath with a C.V. too long to repeat. He is also a contrarian with a Catholic eye for gall and wormwood. The range and fecundity of his weblog makes it a rare find. Herewith, an excerpt from his commentary on the official response to the pandemic by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life. This passage addresses Vatican reliance on the precautionary principle, a bureaucratic crutch:
The precaution, or precautionary principle, is the philosophical justification for abject, continuous, unremitting fear. Anything you do, including doing nothing at all, can have the absolute worse consequences. This is a logical truth. The PP would have you protect against every potential worst case, an impossibility. In reality, then, the PP is always used as a weapon to justify panicking about whatever thing its holder wants to panic about. . . .
What strikes the average Friday fisheater is how quickly, and even eagerly, our spiritual leaders embraced coronadoom restrictions. They didn’t protest when the government said to shut down public masses. Even though they could have. Our dear prelates and priests could have said, “No way we’re stopping the worship of God. Come get us if you have to, but we’re doing it.”
Read the whole thing here.