VATICAN CITY — In promoting Christian unity, ecumenical prayer and practical cooperation among divided church communities, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been all bad news.
“Although it has impeded many contacts and projects, the crisis has been also an opportunity to strengthen and renew the relationships between Christians, and even to create new forms of koinonia (communion) between them,” according to a paper prepared by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Even the differences among Christian communities — such as the importance of in-person participation at liturgies or the acceptance of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus — have had a positive side, at least in the sense that Christians of different denominations came to know each other better, the paper said.
As part of the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the pontifical council presented the paper Jan. 20 online and with a discussion at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
The paper, “Ecumenism in a Time of Pandemic: From Crisis to Opportunity,” summarized responses to questions the council sent to the ecumenical offices of the Eastern Catholic churches and national bishops’ conferences. The council received 88 responses, including six from the Eastern Catholic synods, it said.
Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the council, told participants in the discussion that “the first ecumenical outcome of the pandemic is a deeper, wider awareness of being one Christian family, an awareness rooted in the experience of our common destiny as a human family and our shared vulnerability.”
Introducing the results, the council noted that, throughout history, “political, social and cultural developments” impacted relations among Christians, whether by deepening fractures, bringing divided communities into contact with each other or motivating them to join forces to face a common problem or threat.
And, in reacting to the threat of the coronavirus and the limited possibilities to attend church services, Christians learned a lot from each other, the paper said, pointing first of all to how Catholics and other very liturgical communities grew in their appreciation of praying with and studying the Bible, often with the help of their Protestant and evangelical neighbors.
In many parts of the world, it said, older mainline churches also tried to play catch-up with and learn from the online and social media outreach that already were a regular part of the lives of smaller, newer Christian communities.
But the paper also noted how the pandemic highlighted differences between churches that regularly celebrate the sacraments and those more focused on Scripture and preaching, and consequently their ease in accepting church closures or strict limits on attendance.
A more striking ecumenical question raised in the report regarded the possibility suggested in some Protestant churches for “a domestic eucharistic celebration without an ordained minister.”
For instance, it said, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany reported that it had been asked whether the pandemic “constitutes an emergency situation that allows the celebration of a home Communion without an ordained person or to offer a digital Communion with the domestic consumption of bread and wine.”
Finnish Lutheran Bishop Jari Jolkkonen of Kuopio told the conference some raised the same idea in his church, suggesting a parishioner following the liturgy “via computer or mobile phone could consume bread and wine on his or her own sofa while following a priest in the church space consecrating the holy Communion.”
“Although this desire arises from a sincere spiritual longing,” the bishop said, “we responded that, on the basis of our sacramental theology, this sofa Eucharist is not possible. According to our understanding, the sacrament always requires the presence of an ordained priest and a congregation gathered at a specific time and in specific place.”
Petros Vassiliadis, a professor of theology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, said questions about the Eucharist also were a point of controversy among the Orthodox in Greece. To prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, he said, health experts and some priests and bishops suggested allowing the faithful to receive the consecrated bread and wine by intinction — dipping the consecrated bread in the chalice — rather than the traditional method of all the laity receiving the consecrated bread and wine together from a common spoon.
The idea, Vassiliadis told the conference, had the added advantage of reducing “the existing gap between clergy and laity.”
But it did not get very far, he said, in part because of “an almost magical understanding of the Eucharist that dominated the debate.”
“Many pious believers, also some hierarchs and priests, insist that what is consecrated,” especially the bread and wine during a liturgy, “cannot be affected by the laws of nature, and therefore, viral diseases cannot be transmitted during an Orthodox eucharistic liturgy,” he said. Many even believe it “cannot be transmitted within a church building.”