A recent commentary in National Catholic Register, titled The Shepherds the Church Needs Now (https://www.ncregister.com/dai...), highlighted seven theological questions on the top of the mind from the flock during this COVID-19 crisis. They are:
- Does there need to be a congregation for a Mass to be said?
- What efficacy does a Mass have if there is no congregation there to receive the Eucharist? (The fact that these questions are asked shows that many don’t have a proper understanding of the purpose of the Mass.)
- Is there any benefit to watching Mass on TV? Does it need to be “live”?
- What is a spiritual communion? Does it really “work”?
- What if I have a mortal sin on my soul but can’t find a means to get to confession? What should I do?
- Is it possible to go to confession over Zoom or Skype or some such service?
- Why did the Vatican put out a statement making various activities a means to gain a “plenary indulgence” during this time of isolation? What is a plenary indulgence, and what do I need to do to get one (or many)?
This article will answer your questions and provide a theological underpinning to those answers.
1) Does there need to be a congregation for a Mass to be said?
The norm for Holy Mass is that at least one member of the faithful is present. A private Mass with no members participating is an exception. The Code of Canon Law 906 states, "Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful."
However, it is not necessary for a congregation for a Mass to be said. In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Mass that outlines the rubrics about the Holy Mass has a different Order of Mass in which only one server participates.
2) What efficacy does a Mass have if there is no congregation there to receive the Eucharist?
Yes, the Mass does have efficacy despite the lack of a congregation. This is clear from the 1965 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, 32:
It is also only fitting for us to recall the conclusion that can be drawn from this about “the public and social nature of each and every Mass.” For each and every Mass is not something private, even if a priest celebrates it privately; instead, it is an act of Christ and of the Church. In offering this sacrifice, the Church learns to offer herself as a sacrifice for all and she applies the unique and infinite redemptive power of the sacrifice of the Cross to the salvation of the whole world. For every Mass that is celebrated is being offered not just for the salvation of certain people, but also for the salvation of the whole world.
While it is definitely fitting to have active participation by the faithful in the Holy Mass, a private Mass still provides "brings a rich and abundant treasure of special graces to help the priest himself, the faithful, the whole Church and the whole world toward salvation" (Mysterium Fidei, 32).
3) Is there any benefit to watching Mass on TV? Does it need to be “live”?
Watching Mass on TV is not the same as attending Mass. In ordinary times, it does not fulfill someone’s Sunday/holy day obligation. Of course, God never obligates us to do the impossible. Today, in areas heavily hit by the COVID-19 virus, attending Mass is what moral theologians would call a “moral impossibility” and therefore excuses one from the obligation to attend Mass. In addition, bishops around the world have cancelled public Mass or offered dispensation to those at most risk from the virus.
Watching Mass is not a perfect replacement for attending Holy Mass; however, it does enable the viewer to reflect upon the readings, to hear the homily, and to pray along with the community. These are all pious things that bring spiritual benefit. Also, when combined with a Spiritual Communion, they enable the viewer to keep Holy the Sabbath. Keep in mind that the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy is divine law, and is an obligation we are still required to keep, even if we are unable to attend Mass.
You can view the livestreams of the Holy Week liturgies from St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco – here.
4) What is a spiritual communion? Does it really “work”?
One alternative option is on Sunday to make a Spiritual Communion in addition to reflecting on the Mass readings of the day. With Spiritual Communion, the believer embraces the desire to be in union with Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. It is often used in preparation for the Holy Mass and by those who cannot receive the Eucharist. You can find a more detail explanation in our previous blog - The Grace of Spiritual Communion.
Here is a form of Spiritual Communion suggested by St. Alphonsus Liguori:
“My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.”
5) What if I have a mortal sin on my soul but can’t find a means to get to confession? What should I do?
If you cannot get to confession, it is possible to repent through an “act of perfect contrition. According to Father Pius Pietrzyk, OP, chair of pastoral studies at St. Patrick's Seminary, “perfect contrition” is sorrow for one's sins based upon love for God and a firm resolution not to commit them again along with the intention of confessing them in the Sacrament as soon as it becomes possible. It is called perfect because one is sorrowful out of love for God and not for fear of punishment in Hell (imperfect contrition or “attrition”).
Perfect contrition “remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1452). In order to have a perfect contrition, one must pray an act of contrition out of love for God and make a firm resolution to go to Sacrament of Confession when that becomes possible again.
6) Is it possible to go to confession over Zoom or Skype or some such service?
No, confession cannot be accomplished over Zoom, Skype, or another video conferencing service. The sacrament requires a in-person conversation between the penitent and the priest, because sacraments are physical signs to efficacious grace. The conversation between the penitent and the priest is that sign and must be accomplished in person. Here is a First Things article, Why We Can't Confess Over Zoom, that explains in detail the reasons from a Sacramental Theology perspective.
7) Why did the Vatican put out a statement making various activities a means to gain a “plenary indulgence” during this time of isolation? What is a plenary indulgence, and what do I need to do to get one (or many)?
When one sins, there are two consequences for the sinner. If it is a grave sin, then it deprives one of communion with God and makes one incapable of eternal life, leading to eternal punishment. Through the Sacrament of Confession, one receives forgiveness of sins, reversing its ramifications for one's soul. There is a second temporal punishment of sin. All sin, even venial sin, lead to an unhealthy attachment to worldly things and requires purification on earth or in purgatory.
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471).
On March 27th, St. Francis offered a plenary indulgence to all those who participated in the ‘Urbi et Orbi’ ceremony. This indulgence already exists, having been in the Handbook of Indulgences for years. This year was different in that 'Urbi et Orbi' normally does not occur at this time. To receive the indulgence, the faithful needed to embrace a turning away from sin and toward a conversion to God. This was done by the following:
- A spirit detached from sin.
- Sacramental confession as soon as possible.
- Eucharistic Communion as soon as possible.
- Prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions.
- Being united spiritually through the media to the pope’s special prayer and blessing on 27th March.
Since the ‘Urbi et Orbi’ ceremony has passed, does that mean that one missed the opportunity for getting an indulgence? Yes, for that specific one for this year; however, the Church specifies multiple ways to gain indulgences. You can learn about them in the Handbook of Indulgences – available for download here.