ROME – With the coronavirus forcing church closures and limiting access to sacraments, the Catholic Church has dusted off some old practices that perhaps had fallen into disuse, while also availing itself of new means of ensuring faithful can access the essentials.
With increasing numbers of people confined at home with no access to Mass or confession, pastors everywhere, Pope Francis included, have turned to some little-known, or at least little-used, concepts and practices, including “spiritual communion,” indulgences and general absolution. There’s also, perhaps, a fresh impetus to revisit the idea of “baptism by desire.”
All are practices the Church ordinarily has little reason to emphasize, but which increasingly are coming in handy as the coronavirus continues to spread.
From the moment public events were canceled and Masses suspended in China and Hong Kong, spiritual communion was something the bishops and priests stressed heavily in place of being able to attend Mass physically.
An ancient practice described by St. Thomas Aquinas as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him,” spiritual communion is a way for people to access the grace of the Eucharist if they are unable to physically receive it.
Traditionally, Catholics are required to attend Sunday Mass, while spiritual communion has been encouraged only in certain cases, including parishioners who attend a parish without a priest; non-Catholic Christians who can’t receive the Catholic Eucharist; home-bound persons due to illness or disability; and divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment, who were barred from the Eucharist until Pope Francis in 2016 opened a cautious door in his document Amoris Laetitia.
Spiritual communion was also emphasized by St. John Paul II in his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and Pope Francis has recently urged quarantined viewers tuning into his daily Masses to make an act of spiritual communion.
Though he doesn’t do it every time, the pope has frequently recited aloud a prayer for those watching at home that says, “My Jesus, I believe you are truly present in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. I love you above all things, and I desire you in my soul. Because right now I cannot receive you sacramentally, at least come spiritually into my heart. As you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself to you. Don’t not allow that I am ever separated from you.”
On Friday, the Vatican Penitentiary, which handles matters related to conscience, highlighted two other rare Catholic practices: general absolution and indulgences – practices rarely drawn upon apart from extraordinary circumstances.
Though indulgences can be obtained under a variety of circumstances in Catholic life, the Vatican Penitentiary on Friday announced it was offering special indulgences for all those afflicted with the COVID-19 coronavirus, medical personnel who care for them, those in quarantine, and all those praying for them.
An indulgence is the full remission of the temporal consequences of a person’s sins after they have been absolved.
General absolution, meaning the forgiveness of sins in a group setting rather than individually, is far rarer, and is usually only deemed acceptable during major crises.
Since the Second Vatican Council the Vatican has limited the use of general absolution and tightened the conditions in which it is acceptable, encouraging individual Catholics to instead confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution in the traditional context of the Sacrament of Confession.
However, in Friday’s decree, the Vatican Penitentiary said general absolution may be permissible in areas severely impacted by the coronavirus where people are unable to leave their homes, leaving it up to the local bishop to decide cases in which to allow general absolution.
One recent example when general absolution was permitted was the March 1979 crisis in the U.S. involving the Three Mile Island nuclear powerplant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A reactor underwent a partial meltdown, marking the largest accident in U.S. commercial nuclear powerplant history.
At the time, and due to the risks involved, then-Bishop William Keeler granted general absolution to those directly in the crosshairs, since not everyone would have the chance to make an individual confession before the explosion was expected to happen.
In Friday’s decree, the Vatican Penitentiary also clarified that confessions cannot be done at a distance, meaning over the phone or through Skype, but that if a priest is inaccessible, sincere penance and request for God’s forgiveness is enough.
During Friday’s morning Mass Pope Francis seemed to encourage this sort of confession for those under lockdown, telling Catholics without access to a priest but who need confession to “do what the Catechism (of the Catholic Church) says.”
“It is very clear: If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly to God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart.” He also urged them to make an act of contrition and to promise to confess individually as soon as they are able.
Another concern the coronavirus raises is for those who are expected to enter the Catholic Church at Easter.
April and May tend to be prime-time for adult converts set to receive the so-called “Sacramental Grand Slam” on Easter, meaning all three of the Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation.
With the suspension of public Masses and the increasing cancellation of group gatherings, the question is raised as to what will happen to all those set to receive the sacraments this Easter.
Some might be postponed, and some might happen in a smaller, private context with just immediate family, but there is also the risk that a person might contract the coronavirus and pass away before receiving the sacraments.
This raises the question of whether the ancient Catholic practice called “Baptism of desire” can be allowed, meaning a person because of death is baptized not through the sacrament, but through their desire for it provided they make an act of repentance from sin.
While Catholics are increasingly turning to these old and likely oft forgotten practices amid the coronavirus outbreak, they are also availing themselves of new technologies to ensure access to Mass and other forms of prayer and devotion.
Since the suspension of public Masses in many countries, priests and parishes throughout the world, including the pope, have begun livestreaming their Masses on Facebook or YouTube so their congregation, while unable to physically attend Mass, still has access. Some priests also broadcast the Mass over local radio stations.
Pope Francis’s own “virtual parish” has drawn thousands since he first began livestreaming his daily morning Masses after the Italian government issued nationwide restrictions on movement and gatherings.
Given the development of science, medicine and knowledge of the spread of disease, perhaps there’s wisdom to the concept of social distancing, which has forced pastors to go back to the toolbox and pull out some implements they haven’t used in a while.
In the meantime, the Catholic Church and the Vatican itself also are making good use of social media and modern technology, offering the faithful a unique blend of ancient practices and new solutions to a modern pandemic.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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