Even During a Pandemic, We Can Serve Others in Our Communities

When the threat of COVID is behind us and we’re allowed to meet new people again, I know one of the first topics of conversations will be: “What happened to you during the pandemic?”  So far, I have heard a range of life experiences, from the challenging to the traumatic, everything from getting laid off from work to having a loved one die from the virus.  No one has escaped the impacts of this pandemic.  It has been a solidarity-building experience for people everywhere, while also challenging our faith in ourselves and the direction to which God leads us. It has illuminated the greater need for collective responses to threats that transcend any divisions in our society. It has also called us all to service.

As a city councilmember of Burien, WA, about 15 minutes south of Seattle, I have seen how the public health crisis has directly impacted our local government and social service network.  Within the city government, we have lost out on expected annual revenue due to the decrease in economic activity, we have had to lay off employees, and we worry that the federal government will not supply us with the additional monies needed to fill the gap.  Additionally, the social service networks that provide the majority of the community work within localities have a shortage of volunteers and donations. Usually, the majority of volunteers for these kinds of programs (like St. Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army) are of the vulnerable age for exposure to the virus. No one was prepared for this kind of impact.

Marginalized communities are being hit the hardest, having trouble paying rent, not knowing where their next bag of groceries will come from, and worrying about getting COVID while at work.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.1% of the American population was food insecure prior to COVID, which is close to 38 million people.  Feeding America projects that the number could rise to 54 million, or 1 in 6 Americans, by the end of 2020.  We know these problems will continue throughout the period of the pandemic.

I struggled at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, feeling powerless to make change in my community at a time when I knew people needed support the most. How are Catholics able to serve the margins during a pandemic? Where can Catholics find outlets to support and encounter neighbors in need? Scripture calls us to provide this support and encounter in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” As Catholics, as millennials, and as community-minded individuals, it is our Christ-inspired duty to serve.  I grow more and more irritable with every news story of millennials seeking the beach or going to parties instead of working toward eradicating the social and economic inequalities exacerbated by COVID.

My personal saving grace from the feeling of powerlessness came in the form of a volunteer opportunity through AmeriCorps VISTA, delivering meals to families and youth who are food insecure. Every day, I took meals directly to the door of families so that their kids could eat breakfast and lunch and so they had access to fresh groceries.  Every delivery I made, I knew I was working to feed the hungry who are made in the image and likeness of God.  Whenever there were days where I didn’t want to leave the house, it didn’t matter.  Someone else’s hunger outweighed my disinterest in leaving my own comfort. As a Catholic called intto the service of my community, there is never an excuse to not help others who are less fortunate.

Catholic Social Teaching is not only a driving force for me as an elected official, but it challenges me to serve others in every element of my life.  It calls us to live out our values in the world, on the streets, in the lives of others; to live in radical solidarity with them.  You can’t live in solidarity with others if you’re choosing to not wear masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines. You can’t respect life and creation if you don’t work to ensure its protection.  And you can’t heed the call to service if you don’t listen to what God is asking you to do through prayer and reflection.  This service during COVID can renew a relationship with God through the charitable fruit of the Holy Spirit.  That spiritual connection creates a sense of purpose for us in our community, making new connections with those less fortunate.

Responding to the impacts of COVID reminded me of Christ’s goodness by working alongside partners at public housing authorities and nonprofits serving communities, but more importantly, through the people I served.  I struggled with the feeling of being unhelpful, locked in my apartment for months.  But through this response experience, I’m encouraging you to take actions that further your faith in Christ, further your faith in your community, and reestablish a hope in humanity—that we will get through this if we all act collectively with charity to be kind, overflowing with love to support our  neighbors.  At a time when many of us feel isolated and powerless, we should navigate our way through this imperfect time with the God-given abilities we have to make a difference.

Kevin Schilling is a millennial city councilmember of Burien, WA.

In an Election Year with Unprecedented Challenges, Catholics are Called to Protect Voting Access

This year, Catholics have important and difficult decisions to make up and down the ballot that will impact the trajectory of our country in the years and decades ahead. No matter what decisions each of us makes when casting our ballots, we all have a stake—and responsibility as Christians—in ensuring that every American who is eligible to vote is able to fulfill this most fundamental democratic right.

The coronavirus pandemic adds an additional layer of uncertainty as we vote this year. As COVID-19 case levels rise across the country and the death toll climbs above 175,000, it is likely that Americans will go to the polls amidst social distancing and even stay-at-home orders. Some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters – including older Americans, people with various illnesses, and people with disabilities – will have the hardest time making it to the polls. Others will face both new and long-standing voter suppression efforts.

One of the central themes of Catholic Social Teaching is participation: “We believe people have a right and duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.” In our representative democracy, voting is a foundational component of participation. With so many challenges facing our country, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines in 2020, and we can’t let systemic failures leave any of our brothers and sisters out of the process. We need voting systems that protect each individual’s right to vote while also protecting their health and safety.

In the spirit of this teaching, Catholic public officials, clergy, lay leaders, and media personalities must forcefully avoid spreading conspiracy theories for partisan political purposes, oppose voter suppression, and actively promote voting access.

Avoid Spreading Conspiracy Theories

During a recent appearance on a Catholic media outlet, President Trump put forth a flurry of inapplicable analogies, distortions, and outright falsehoods about voting access in the 2020 election. While pointing out that people continued to vote in person during World War I and World War II, the President labeled mail-in voting as “the greatest fraud ever”—and went on to accuse foreign governments of printing US ballots and claim that California election officials might send mail-in ballots to undocumented immigrants but not to Republicans.

Since the president’s claims were not challenged on air, it’s important to debunk them here:

Every state has voters who vote by mail. Five states already utilize universal mail-in voting, tens of millions of Americans have their ballot handed to them by their postal carrier (not a poll worker), and the number of fraudulent ballots is miniscule. The president himself voted absentee in the 2018 election. His statements about California are fabrications. And during World War II, service members did mail in absentee ballots, and regular polling places remained open because the country faced a different challenge during that war than it does right now. World War II was an overseas armed conflict; it was not a contagious virus at home. And the very Americans who fought in World War II are among the most at-risk to die from the coronavirus.

Catholic leaders have a responsibility to tell the truth, and they must demand the same from our public officials. Fear mongering with the purpose of decreasing voting access is unacceptable.

Ensuring voting access during the pandemic

To preserve voting access in the 2020 election, we need safe in-person voting, expanded early voting and absentee voting, and increased education campaigns so that every eligible voter knows how and when to exercise their right to vote.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides unique challenges to election administrators. Our leaders should focus on rising to these challenges, not making them harder. As my colleague Tammy Patrick has pointed out, we have laws on the books to prevent fraud and to discover and prosecute it when it happens. She told NPR, “If and when a bank gets robbed or a car gets stolen, we don’t stop using banks or cars. We enforce the laws we have in place.”

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that expanding voting access by mail benefits one political party or the other. With the coronavirus most affecting older voters – who voted decisively for President Trump in 2016 – it may even benefit his own election prospects to promote this option.  Catholics of all political persuasions should call on their federal representatives to fully fund election security measures in all 50 states and demand that their state and local leaders administer an election in which every eligible voter can safely cast their ballot.

Opposing voter suppression

As Catholics, we must oppose voter suppression that is aimed at preventing our Black and Brown brothers and sisters from voting. The USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship mentions voter suppression by name and it repeatedly calls on Catholics to oppose racism. It states that the wound of racism “continues to fester” and that racism of any form is an assault on human dignity.

As I recently told Charlie Camosy in Crux, racism is not just a problem of personal sin; it is a systemic problem. We must certainly “open wide our hearts,” and we must also open up our political processes to include every eligible American.

This includes a collective Catholic effort to protect against the elimination of polling places in majority Black neighborhoods, oppose efforts to reduce polling hours, speak out against “purged” voter rolls, and combat disinformation campaigns that would disenfranchise Black Americans.

We’re all called to protect the right to vote

Living out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching means promoting the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters—including their full right to participate in our civic processes. In the face of a pandemic, social unrest, and voter suppression, protecting every eligible Americans’ right to vote is a challenge every American Catholic is called to meet. No matter what disagreements we have when we fill out our ballots, we should ensure each one of our eligible brothers and sisters has equal access to the ballot itself. Anything short of that standard is a violation of our faith-based principles and the rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Chris Crawford is a Catholic activist in Silver Spring, Maryland. He manages the Faith in Democracy portfolio at Democracy Fund, a private foundation in Washington, D.C. that champions the leaders and solutions making American democracy more open and just. He previously worked in the pro-life movement for The Susan B. Anthony List and their affiliated Super PAC.


Love, Racism, and Alienation: James Baldwin’s ‘Conundrum of Color’ in 2020

What does it look like to be loved entirely? To give yourself, to be received, to be embraced, with all of your wounds and all of your beauty?

The desire for a love like this permeates the life and work of James Baldwin.

For a Black man born in Harlem during the Great Depression, the grandson of a slave, the stepson of a man who was part of the first generation of free men, these questions bear a unique weight and, for Baldwin, carry the urgency of  a prophet.

When you are met each day with the anger and bitterness of a father who, as Baldwin put it, was very black and beautiful, but who did not know that he was beautiful, and with a society that has conspired to teach you that you are worthless, that you are less than–a society in which  the basic freedoms taken for granted by most people in your country will have to be literally fought for, sometimes to the death—when this is the world in which one is immersed from the day of one’s birth, then the recovery of one’s “birthright” of human dignity and the necessity of grappling with what Baldwin called the “rock of ages” – that inheritance of suffering and pain that has accrued for hundreds of years, forming into the bedrock of the nation – becomes the work of a lifetime.

But for Baldwin, this work belongs to an entire people, to all of us. “The conundrum of color,” he wrote, “is the inheritance of every American.” Facing the fact that we are each created with this unimaginably deep need for love, a desire to be affirmed to the very core of our being as good, as worthy, as one who is, in the fullest sense of the word, a person, we also must face the fact that, in a unique and specific way, our world as Americans has been formed around both a denial of this love and a denial of this need.

After 244 years of brutalization and bloodshed, followed by a war that turned brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers against one another, it shouldn’t surprise us that many have felt inclined to try to forget this history—to, as they say, “move on.” And yet, if we actually listen to each other’s experiences, if we actually study what has occurred in this country since 1865, we will quickly discover that 244 years of slavery cannot be undone, that in some way our history will always shape us, and that if we truly want to be free, rather than determined by the past, we will have to grapple with this fact.

From the 1860s to the present, surges of violence and upheaval across our country have been followed by periods of relative calm and supposed stability, yet the calm hid what was just beneath the surface: the astounding reality of each person’s capacity to consistently deny the humanity of another human being—a denial that haunts us still today. In the face of this reality, we risk entering into bitterness, hatred, and nihilism, either through adopting a racist attitude ourselves, through continuing to ignore the problem at hand, or through failed attempts to resolve it. If we pretend it does not and never has existed, or repeat that mantra of complacency (“Well, I’m not a racist!”), we can live in a banal and lukewarm bath of contentment, patting ourselves on the back about “how far we’ve come as a nation.” Or, acknowledging reality, we might attempt to assemble a system that guarantees the total eradication of prejudice by eliminating those who transgress the norms imposed by the system, attempting to completely externalize evil by engaging in witch hunts and purifying our communities through violent exclusion. In the same country, even in the same city or home, we can live in a variety of parallel worlds that each respond or fail to respond to this traumatic past in different and often entirely irreconcilable ways.

According to Baldwin, none of these responses get to the root of the problem. He proposes that the origin of the slave trade was not necessarily the evilness of the traders and owners, but instead their lack of awareness of the needs of their own humanity. The trajectory of racism in the US is the result of a people alienated from who we are as beings created for relationship. This alienation from ourselves, this lack of understanding of our own need for love and unity, has often convinced us that power and hatred are more satisfying ends to pursue. In fact, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently argued, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” In other words, the concept of race itself was generated out of this supposed need to oppress the other, rather than out of any truly fundamental difference between groups of human beings. It is our blindness that allows us to think we can own another human being, deny him rights, kill him out of an irrational fear—to consider him our enemy rather than our brother or sister. Baldwin suggests that the only remedy to this evil is an encounter that can reawaken our own personhood. It is those who take the risk of allowing themselves to be loved who can begin to discover their own need, and to respect that same need in their neighbor.

As we go forward into an unknown future, I invite each of us to engage in the work of deeply and sincerely listening. This starts within our own families, schools, and places of employment, but it doesn’t end there. Depending on our age, geographical location, profession and so forth, this listening could extend in different ways. It might involve entering into a serious study of the history of African-American experience in the United States. It might involve broadening our knowledge of American literature to include voices and experiences far outside of our own. It might involve volunteering in our local communities and spending time together with people of a variety of backgrounds with whom we might normally not interact. It might also involve familiarizing ourselves with our local governments and public institutions, and participating in needed reforms. It will always involve relinquishing the fearful, dismissive attitude that so often characterizes responses to the call for greater understanding of “the conundrum of color”. There are endless creative possibilities available when we begin from a position of openness and curiosity in the face of reality. Remembering our own experience, the experience that allows us to make a judgment about the fundamental positivity of reality, we should find ourselves with a profound freedom to encounter one another, to listen to one another, and to live with one another in a new way.

Rose Tomassi teaches Philosophy, History, and Craftsmanship at Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, PA.

Growing Up White in White Spaces: Incomplete Glimpses of Trinitarian Communion

Where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships? I learned it in Oakville, Missouri at Queen of All Saints Catholic Church: on Catholic Youth Council (CYC) sports teams, at De Smet Jesuit High School, and through my family. I was grateful for these loving communities. I still am. They inspired many moments of joy and laughter, offered me friendship, taught me teamwork and sharing—and patience and prayer and self-giving love—and in so doing gave me a glimpse of the ever-loving Communion of the three divine Persons whom we celebrated last month on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

On that Sunday, amid the civil unrest prompted by the latest incident in our history of systemic racism, I once again noticed the incompleteness of the image of the Trinitarian Communion that my upbringing offered me. To be sure, no image of Communion offered in our finite temporal reality could ever completely convey the grandeur of the Trinitarian Mystery. Every child’s upbringing will provide glimpses of the Trinity in the communion they experience through ordinary human relationships, but they will each have blind spots in their vision of the Trinity that is the infinitely knowable Communion of divine Persons. Prompted by this intersection between our nation’s civic life and our liturgical year, I would like to offer a reflection on the blind spots that my suburban St. Louis upbringing left on my understanding of the God who is Communion. I believe such individual reflections can be a key step in unraveling systemic racism and living in full unity with God as members of His Mystical Body.

So I ask again, where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships?

Oakville, a community of about 10,000 people during my years there, sits at the southernmost tip of St. Louis County. The result of suburbanization, it offered a safe and calm environment as a child. I would run out to the ice cream truck in the summer, umpire at QAS, explore the natural beauty of Bee Tree Park, enjoy frozen custard with my CYC teammates after games, and excitedly pester police officers for the free Cardinals baseball cards they passed out to kids in this tranquil St. Louis community.

When I was 18 and geolocating myself in stories more expansive than Oakville’s, I researched the demographics of the suburban community, and what I discovered was striking but not surprising: Oakville’s population was 98% white. The most recent US Census data has “White Alone” at 96.2%. Neither percentage is surprising given the de facto segregation brought on by mid-century “white flight” to the suburbs, an American phenomenon particularized in suburban communities like Oakville.

Queen of All Saints, my local parish, reflected the racial makeup of Oakville itself. Through my nine years of Parish School of Religion (PSR) classes, my approximately 17 seasons of CYC sports, and my 15 years of weekly Mass attendance there, I can only recall knowing of a single black member of our parish community. (The fact that he stood out to me in itself reveals the distinctiveness of racial minorities in such an overwhelmingly white parish). When I listened to my priests’ and deacons’ homilies, I heard the wisdom and holiness of God’s ordained faithful, but only from the whites among God’s ordained faithful. When I lined up before the CYC soccer, baseball, and volleyball games to open our competition in prayer, I did so alongside loving teammates and coaches, but only white teammates and coaches. When I attended adoration, I kneeled in silent prayer with other broken yet devout searchers, but only the white subgroup of broken yet devout searchers. After I worshipped at Mass and waited as my dedicated mom and stepdad chatted with other parishioners, I was absorbing community life, but only community life between white parishioners. When I checked in with my supervisors and laid out pregame instructions to coaches as a CYC umpire and referee, I encountered men and women modeling the virtues cultivated by youth sports, but only white men and women with white cultural fluencies. My formation in Christ at QAS was rich and textured, but nonetheless incomplete in presenting me with the racial and cultural diversity that lives through, with, and in Christ’s Mystical Body.

At DeSmet Jesuit High School, a community still close to my heart, I gained a more representative, though still incomplete picture of the Church in St. Louis. Across 8 semesters totaling 54 courses, I had zero black teachers. On my six or seven high school retreat experiences, I don’t recall ever hearing a black speaker. During my one season playing soccer and four playing volleyball, I never had a black teammate or coach. In my all-honors core schedule, I do not recall having a single black classmate in my honors classes—meaning that I learned about the international slave trade and Western imperialism in AP World History class without any black classmates, I learned about the United States’ fraught racial history in an AP US History class without any black classmates, I had peer-to-peer discussions about Miranda rights and affirmative action in an AP US Government class without any black classmates, I considered the racial dynamics of Shakespeare’s Othello in an Honors World Literature class without any black classmates, I read Huckleberry Finn in an AP US Literature class without any black classmates, and I read through invaluable works of the Western literary canon in an AP World Literature class without any black classmates. Consequently, some of the most valuable insights afforded by my academic education were cultivated in my mind without being filtered through the perspectives, objections, insights, and experiences of any black members of the Mystical Body. Some of my most unconscious assumptions about authority, intelligence, academic knowledge, course content, and social norms were established in the wonderful, loving, academic environment of De Smet, but one nonetheless lacking the presence of any black voices.

Systemic racism, to be sure, was addressed in my Morality and Faith & Justice courses. The former was taught by Mr. Donahue, a man I privately criticized at the time as a “bleeding heart liberal”—a “snowflake” before the word itself gained such as disparaging and politicized definition—but whom I now recognize as a Christian more fully attuned to Christ’s summons than my argumentative, intransigent teenage self would allow. I grew more deeply in love with Christ at De Smet, and that Jesuit Catholic community certainly set the moral foundation that makes this very reflection possible. Still, my experiences there left me with blind spots in my conception of the Holy Trinity’s Communion which we find reflected in our human relationships.

I share all of this for several reasons. Let me first address some objections that I have come to expect given the ideological blinders worn by too many Americans when discussing race-related experiences. I do not share these reflections as a performance of self-flagellation for white guilt. I do not share these reflections out of deference to the illiberal demands of leftist, identitarian zealots. I do not share these reflections to heap shame on white St. Louis Catholics or on faithful communities as beautiful and good as Queen of All Saints or De Smet Jesuit High School. (De Smet in particular appears to have begun intentionally addressing the racial disparities in society and in their school community by increasing the racial diversity of their faculty, establishing race-conscious scholarships, and providing student programming to heighten racial consciousness.)

Rather, I share all of this so that my fellow white Catholics can reflect on their own blind spots and work to see and hear the nonwhite members of the Body of Christ. My hope is that white Catholics throughout the US might commit to, as St. Louis’s Archbishop Carlson recently urged, “listening to our brothers and sisters of color and learning about their experiences, their triumphs, their struggles and sorrows” so that we Catholics can walk together through these tense and perhaps transformative moments in our nation’s history.

How can we do this? Plan parish movie nights around racial justice topics. Start a small group to read the US Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” Email your Catholic school’s administration and request new programs. Ask your diocese to host a Theology on Tap series about being bridge builders across our nation’s and your city’s racial divide. Speak to your children about systemic racism—not just overt prejudice—and share with them the names and stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Such actionable and reasonable steps, even if potentially uncomfortable, would strengthen Christ’s Body and provide a new angle from which to see the Trinitarian Communion alive in our world.

Michael Jezewak is a high school theology teacher who has been formed by Jesuit, Christian Brother, and Augustinian Catholic educational institutions.

Second Line Remembering: Toward a Theology of Zoom Liturgies

Our Predicament

In these past few months, which have unpropitiously—or, perhaps, fortuitously and providentially—included the holiest days of the Christian year—the Triduum—American Catholics have found themselves in the unusual predicament of having regular access to Mass unavailable to them. Even in typing out that overlong sentence, it becomes clear how narrowly—geographically and historically speaking—widespread access to the Eucharistic feast has been an assured constant in the lives of Catholic Christians. Throughout Christian history and still today in the Amazon, rural North America, the Middle East, and Asia, Christians have found themselves prevented from participating in the sacrament that is the source and summit of the Christian faith. In solidarity with the Christians we too often forget, most Catholic Christians across six of Earth’s seven continents find themselves now in the third month of Sundays without Mass, days uninterrupted by a thirty-minute liturgy of thanks.

Our states seem to be on the cusp of re-opening, Churches about to host again the celebrations of the Eucharist. It seems that in-person Mass attendance is imminent for the physically fit. We are eager to “return to normal,” find a “new normal,” and relegate our experience of eucharistic deprivation to an uncomfortable episode that we can quickly leave behind. But perhaps we would do well not to let the uncomfortable solidarity of sacramental deprivation in which we have been dwelling pass without reflection.

The hearts of the Church’s members yearn to participate in the Eucharistic feast, but the promise of Christ to remain with his Church, always, to the end of the world (Mt 28:20), while sacramentally fulfilled by the Eucharist, is a promise that holds true even in spaces where the Eucharist is not. Christ’s presence in his mystical body—the Church—opens up endlessly new spaces in which we can participate as an ecclesial body in this strange new time.

Empowered by the reality of the mystical body of Christ, present in the Eucharist and in the fundamental sacrament of the Church, Catholic Christians can use the new tools and spaces of their particular epoch to create new forms of communion and offer new modes of witnessing. While I remain deeply skeptical of the internet, screens, and digital communication, it is clear that whatever space that opens up, Christ can be made present there. If Christ can harrow even hell, it seems quite possible he can redeem Twitter.

In response to the isolations and distancings of COVID-19, the Church has responded in creative ways to the absence of our physical celebration in the Eucharist. These stop-gap measures merit theological reflection, since, as actions of the Church, they are inherently theological actions. There are two forms of these liturgies I will examine, which have raised theological questions for me concerning their nature and action. The first liturgical form is digitally participating in live-stream Masses. While debates go back and forth regarding the benefits of live-stream Masses, the live-stream Mass has been the mode by which many Church members who are homebound, elderly, or ill have attended Mass before the current pandemic.

But, before examining this more popular form, I will examine a liturgical form that held surprising profundity in my experience of it: the lay-led Liturgies of the Word. Empowered by the Eucharist, by Christ’s presence in his mystical body, Christ is truly present wherever Christians gather in his name (Mt 18:20). Christ is present in the prayer happening via video call, in private homes, or among families participates memorially, albeit not sacramentally, in the liturgical actions of the Eucharist. These lay-led prayers recreate liturgical participation in a particularly poignant and theologically compelling manner. This essay is an attempt to both share my own experience of prayer in a time of pandemic and to offer a theological explanation for how the grace of the Eucharist operates in the liturgies of these lay actions and digital spaces.

Primary Tensions

The two primary tensions in the phenomena of digital witnessing to Eucharistic celebrations that must be addressed are the physical and spiritual participation and the local and universal dimensions of the Eucharistic celebration.

The Eucharistic celebration is always the action of the whole Church, not simply of the priest. It is a sacrifice offered in the name of and with the Church universal. Wherever the Mass is celebrated, the whole Christ is there, meaning that Christ’s mystical Body, the Church, is present there. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the Church as, inseparably, the liturgical assembly, the local community, and the whole universal community of believers (§752). “The Church” is constituted of the persons throughout the whole world whom God gathers together through the sacrament of Baptism.

This universal Church is physically incarnated in local communities and is made present as a liturgical celebration in that local community. The Church, the sacrament of Christ in the world, expresses herself most fully in the Eucharist, the paradigmatic sacrament of the Church, who is the sacrament of Christ. As part of Christ’s mystical body, the local church can never be separated from the Church Universal. Thus, each local celebration includes members of the local community who may not be gathered physically at the Eucharistic table and all those members of the Body of Christ, on either side of death, who are alive in Christ. The Eucharistic banquet is a local gathering of a universal communion.

When we witness a Mass via live-stream, we are bearing witness to a local action whose locality we may or may not share. We enter, as witnesses, into the action of a local Church community. But without our physical presence in that shared locality, what does it mean to participate with that local congregation in the Eucharist?

Furthermore, digital liturgies question the limits of “locality” and “presence.” As we witness digital, remote Masses, we no longer are simply spiritually present to that Mass as part of the mystical universal body of Christ. What, then, is the nature of our digital-physical presence at the banquet of the Lord?

The path forward through these tensions that I will propose is memory. Lay liturgical celebrations and remote participation in local Eucharistic celebrations are driven by the fundamental action of the Eucharistic liturgy, anamnesis.

A Digital Triduum

As news of COVID-19 swamped the headlines, as Masses in Italy began to be canceled, and as Lent all too quickly approached Easter, I began to dread its impact on the approaching Triduum. Inevitably, Masses were canceled—and would stay canceled through Easter. In an already devastating news cycle, that realization was greeted with the numb sorrow that permeated March 2020.

But the disruption of liturgical routine is in step with the kairos of the moment. The world has been thrown into a crisis, in the socio-political sense, in a Barthian one. The Church has the capacity, the theological tradition, and the scope of sacramental imagination to respond to watershed moments like the current crisis with creative hope and faith. The Spirit of God assures us that God acts and that God is not bound by the past, but that God is “doing a new thing” (Is 43:19). We can be sure that, just like our brothers and sisters who go without the Eucharist throughout the world on a regular basis, that God is with us in this unexpected and disturbing moment. In a crisis, the liturgies we celebrate, as expressions of our public witness, respond to the reality of God’s continued presence in the Church, even in an environment that poses barriers to the Church’s physical gathering.

Instead of live-streaming services, for the Easter Triduum this year, I participated in lay-led liturgies. Although scattered across the country, a community gathered in an Upper Room of Zoom, digitally bearing witness to the threads of friendship and networks of connection that bind members of Christ’s Church together across state lines and time zones.

First, my experience of participation in the Triduum was due in large part to the traditional practices of physical extra-liturgical experiences. The importance of the Great Fast on Good Friday became doubly significant, as it marked, in a manner the missing liturgy usually did, the liturgical significance of the day. Although unable to gather and participate in the liturgy of Christ’s Passion, our bodies were able to observe Christ’s suffering and death through their hunger. This reemphasized the singular importance of extra-Eucharistic practices in the Church’s liturgical life.

Second, the physical symbols of the liturgy took on a deep significance. On the Easter Vigil, our senses are immersed in physical symbols. Playing with the dualisms of Christianity (light and darkness, the earthy and transcendent, death and life in the waters of Baptism), the Easter Vigil offers a rich cornucopia of sensory memories. In our Zoom liturgy, we began the Easter Vigil liturgy in a dark kitchen. My roommate and I passed the light of Christ between our household candles, recalling the Vigil’s opening liturgy of light. Together, my roommate and I lit a homemade Paschal Candle, in front of a small Pyrex bowl baptismal font.

These symbols clarified the sacramental focus of the Easter Vigil—Baptism. While we missed the full Easter Vigil celebration in the Eucharistic feast, we celebrated the Easter Vigil’s chief liturgical significance as the celebration of Christian initiation. As the traditional celebration for the baptism of new members into the Church, the Easter Vigil remains the night each year in which each member of the Church recommits herself to her own Baptism. Through the recitation of the baptismal promises, each member of the Church commemorates their initiation in Christ’s death and Resurrection. At each Easter Vigil, Christ’s ecclesial body crosses with Christ through death to new life in God (Rom 6:3). The catechumenate does this through their baptism and confirmation, and the Body of the Church does this through the profession of our baptismal vows. Although there was no Mass, our Zoom congregation repeated the solemn promises of our baptism, commemorating our baptism into life in God.

By our interactions with one another, we witnessed physically and digital to the liturgical memories of the Easter Vigil. Participating in the essential actions of the liturgy, our digital liturgy created a secondary order of commemoration. Through our unified remembrance of the symbols of the Easter Vigil, we created a space of memory, a community of witness.

The Zoom community participated spiritually with the churches throughout the world celebrating the Vigil at that moment. But through our physical actions and gathering in the present, through the physical forms of the liturgy, we made our memories of the Triduum present in the here and now. The digitally witnessing community made our past physical experiences of the liturgy present again through our collective remembering. These liturgical actions via Zoom found their source in the memorial action of the Eucharist. Our digital observance and witnessing to the mass is an action derived from the Mass’ own anamnesis.

Witnessing Memory

Most Catholics, myself included, have found our physical participation in Mass each Sunday relegated to watching the Mass via live-stream, through praying together, or spiritual recollection. Our absence from the Eucharistic table can create the false impression that the laity’s presence at the Eucharistic table is inessential. But lay participation in the liturgy is not ancillary to the celebration of the Eucharist. Canon Law insists, “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” (Can. 906). Our participation is not optional. Augustine insists that the Church, its laity and its clergy, are all members of the whole Christ. “To [Christ’s] flesh the Church is joined, and so there is made the whole Christ, Head and body.”[i] The Mass is not the private action of the priest, but always, everywhere, the action of the mystical body of Christ constituted by the baptized community of the faithful.

Thus, the laity are called to active participation in the Eucharist, to offer the actions of their bodies and souls in the participation in the ritual of anamnesis. Our participation in the Eucharist is fundamentally a spiritual reality. The Mass is a cosmic action of the whole Christ, drawing all creation together at the Eucharistic table as an offering to the Father. All members of the Body of Christ are included and offered up in the action of the Eucharist. Our spiritual participation in the Eucharistic banquet, then, continues, despite our physical absence from the Mass.

But far from precluding physical participation, spiritual participation in the Eucharist necessarily leads to physical participation. Our physical participation in the sacrament is not a parallel participation to our spiritual partaking, rather it is the action that necessarily follows from the spiritual communion. Our physical participation in Christ’s gift of self is the necessary expression of the spiritual partaking. This physical expression of spiritual communion is enacted most properly and fully in the sacramental participation in the Eucharist.

If we watch or listen to a liturgy via live-stream, our participation is no longer simply spiritual. Our ears, eyes, and bodies witness the celebration of the Mass. Our eyes are physically witnessing something, our ears hear words. Our tongues move in harmony with the prayers of the Mass, or if we choose to pray silently, the synapses in our brains move without the tongues. Our bodies may move to genuflect or stand, or they may sit on the couch, but nevertheless, they are physically participating.

These secondary physical participations witness to the primary physical participation of the local church community in the Eucharist. With our bodies, we become an appendage to the local gathering body. As we watch or listen to the Mass remotely, we participate physically in its memory.

What is meant here by memory? By memory, I mean the action of communal commemoration. Memory is the act of making that which is not currently present present in our own particular here and now. When a communal remembering is “snatched out of its ‘pastness’ to become a living genesis of today.”[ii] In our own particular lives, we know that a picture can make present to our hearts the same joy we felt in the moment of the memory, a particular room or school building can summon up memories of old faces, meeting an old friend can recall to the present a version of ourselves that has past. The Eucharistic prayer’s anamnesis, a sacramental making-present the memory of what has past, is a communal sacramentalization of this function of human memory.

From its inception, the all-consuming monolith of the internet has daunted cautious minds with its labyrinthine limitlessness. A Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, tantalizing with the fruit of endless search engine answers, the internet is also a space that offers the simulacrum of unlimited connection, unfettered by borders, time or space. The internet plays directly into our curiositas and concupiscence—it offers us seemingly unlimited fodder for our acquisitive desires.

COVID-19 has demonstrated the power technology has to connect us and the great joy that meeting via digital platforms can bring. But it has also emphasized for us how poor a substitute for personal, physical contact digital connection is. Video conferencing may seem like a simple simulacrum of conversation, but academics inform us that our bodies innately respond differently to communication over a screen. In the absence of physical contact, our minds have to process information through verbal cues that would otherwise be communicated between bodies. Living our lives in what some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs might deem the most efficient manner, operating out of a single space, only emphasizes our dependence on our surrounding environment and contextual community to act (and live) appropriately.

Despite plentiful critiques of its effect on our brains, hearts, and bodies, the internet, at its best, is meant to be—and can be—a space of witnessing memory. At its (rarely seen) best, the internet offers users the opportunity to bear witness, dimly, as in a mirror, to others’ lives. Through social media, we participate in the memories of others, on the internet, memories are continually snatched out of their “pastness” and into the present of commemoration. “Live-streamed” events heighten this participatory nature, as we participate in the memory and fact of the event as it is occurring.

Made possible by the internet’s nature as a space of witnessing memory, listening to or watching a Mass via live-stream is different than other forms of observing. Watching a play in a theatre is not an act of memory, the play’s action occurs before the audience on the stage, the audience lives in the present moment with it, their breath, attention, and imagination are essential participants in the fact of the play’s happening. Watching a movie is not an act of memory, since the story happens outside of the viewers’ realm of experience and physical location. The audience is not invited to participate, but rather to meditate upon the events unfolding on film. But the internet and other spaces that host “live” events function as unique spaces of witnessing memory. The audience is invited to “bear witness” to an event in which they are not essential participants.

Witnessing an event via a screen, however, can never be a full, direct participation in the instant of its happening, as we are removed from the event by both distance and by time. As anyone who has experienced a five-second delay or a lag between the audio and video of a film can attest, in a live-streamed video event, we are not perfectly “live” or in the moment of the event. Our witnessing is mediated by a secondary space.

While our witnessing participation is not a full participation, through live-streams, we are present in a unique space and manner to a particular celebration of the Eucharist by a local community. The action of witnessing an event by participating in the fact of it happening in a space in which we are not located but that we make present in our own here-and-now is an action of memory. The event is snatched from its pastness and is made present in communal commemoration.

The Mass is always an act of remembrance, anamnesis, the sacramental action of liturgical, communal memory. Our digital participation in the memory of the Eucharistic celebration draws its life from that anamnesis that is the fundamental action of the mystery of Eucharistic celebrations. Absent the ability to participate sacramentally, we, as the Body of Christ, can physically commemorate our participation in the Lord’s banquet in a para-liturgical manner, through these digital spheres, these “second line Eucharists.”

Second Line Parades and Second Eucharists

In New Orleans, second line parades are an established tradition of liberation, with its roots in African American resistance to the oppression of the human slave trade. Sponsored by New Orleans’ Social, Aid, & Pleasure Clubs, exuberant brass band and jazz parades are a pillar of New Orleans culture. The “second line” refers to the neighbors and the community members who accompany the main “first line” band in the parade. Although not constitutive of the parade proper, the second line members, like the band members, participate in the essential function of the parade. Their accompaniment is an act of witness, a secondary participation in the superabundant, overflowing celebration of the parade band itself.

Their action, although taking place in the present, is a sacrament of memory. The second-line band makes present the music of the main band in a new geography, in a new temporospatial locality, in new bodies. Their music brings to a new present, in a new moment, the action of the main band. Their communal action brings alive into their own secondary community the living action of the principal band. Together, making music, the second line’s actions call to mind its traditions deep roots in memories of liberation and resistance. Contemporary second line bands bring into the present its deep past of celebration and enaction of freedom from enslavement, making the past present in the here and now.

Our liturgical celebrations of the past two months have broken open a new liturgical space, or perhaps more properly, brought into the mainstream of American Catholic consciousness a liturgical space that was created with the first broadcast Mass on live television. Then, and now, in Masses streamed on the internet, this digital presence at the table of the Lord enacts a “second line Eucharist.” The second line Eucharists are an act of ecclesial memory by which we are able to witness to the Church’s sacramental remembering occurring in Eucharistic liturgies across the world.

Our extra-liturgical participations that spring from the spiritual reality and the physically expressed memory of our liturgical actions are these second line Eucharists. As we participate in a live-streamed Mass, physically bearing witness through our ears, our voices, our eyes, or our bodies to the local community elsewhere, we make present the function of the universal church.  Our spiritual participation bears fruit in a new kind of physical participation. The community we build with one another, on the margins of the liturgy, creates a new expression of the Church’s life, a rich para-liturgical participation in the Eucharistic sacrament.

Found in the lay-led gatherings via a video call, by which we gather together in a physical commemoration of Eucharistic gatherings, and in houses across the world, streaming Mass onto a screen, second line Eucharists are the joyful expression of the sacrament of Christ’s mystical body, the Church. The Church’s fundamental identity is the remembering Body who eternally, perpetually, snatches the historical memory of Christ’s love unto the end out of the past into the present, so that his sacrifice is the “living genesis”[iii] of each moment of the Church’s existence today.

Renée Darline Roden, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Theological Studies program, is as an editor and playwright in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Howlround Theatre CommonsAmerica, and Dappled Things.

[i] Augustine, Sermon on 1 John, §1.2

[ii] L-M. Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995) 233.

[iii] Ibid.

The Wounded Healer in a Time of Pandemic

What does it mean to be a minister in contemporary society? Henri Nouwen posed this question in 1972, nearly 50 years ago, as the opening sentence to The Wounded Healer. The world was not under lockdown, but his analysis of the modern person is called into stark relief in a world grieving and fighting a coronavirus. His insights allow us to better serve people in this time, especially those who are isolated by social distancing, our medical workers, and the sick they serve, in whom we see the image of Christ. He reminds us, “The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift” (90). This pandemic will pronounce the loneliness of the sick, the doctor, and the person isolating for safety.

Nouwen writes that the modern, suffering person is “inward,” “fatherless,” and “convulsive,” which are essentially three elements of loneliness. An inward person is “convinced there is nothing ‘out there’ or ‘up there’”, and as a result, the search for meaning turns inward (32). In the isolation of quarantine, as the person sits alone with nothing but the internet and (perhaps) their immediate family to entertain them, the person will be forced to think. A non-believer will probably not engage in prayer in the traditional sense, but they will be forced to slow down, because all of the distractions they normally fill their lives with won’t be there. The busy father who uses the fact that he coaches his son’s Little League team as a way to avoid the fact that he never listens to that son won’t have that as an excuse. The busy small business owner who works 70 hours a week to put food on the table won’t have the distraction of work as a way to avoid the deep introspection that allows him to realize that he hates his job. The twenty-something who lives alone won’t have her constant socializing in various groups as a way to distract from the fact that she has no close friends to whom she can open her life. All of these people will be forced inward, to seek. They can “no longer be busy to avoid a painful self-concentration” 996).

Of course, they will not find meaning inside themselves, because only God can fill their need. Because all the distractions that keep people from seeking are gone, this is the perfect opportunity to preach the love of God to these people. We can “deepen this pain to a level where it can be shared” (99). However, if the Church relies on old modes of authority, it will not be able to speak to the modern person, because of the modern person’s fatherlessness.

The fatherless person is one who rejects traditional authority. In the modern world, many people have been hurt by authority figures. In Nouwen’s world, people were fearful of atomic warfare and disheartened by the government’s failure to eliminate the poverty outside their door (35). While the 20-somethings of 50 years later are not existentially fearing atomic warfare, they do have similar feelings about groups that claim authority. They have witnessed or maybe even served in the longest war in American history; they are losing their jobs as the economy experiences a second major crash in the past dozen years; they see horrible sex abuse coverups by the Church they believed in; they see divorces by their parents who won’t speak to one another anymore. Who doesn’t let them down? Their friends—because if a friend leaves, that’s normal. The 20-something is dominated by “the tyranny of the peer group” (7), which has a different kind of authority. To reject the peer group, which is seen as more reliable than the “fatherly” group, is an act of non-conformity, not one of disobedience (35). It will cause shame, not guilt, and as a result is to be avoided at all costs, because not to do so will cause loneliness.

They also want to change the world; they are so dissatisfied with the world that they’ve grown convulsive. They know “the world shouldn’t be as it is, but see no workable alternative,” so they, without the good example of an authority they respect, turn to dangerous answers (38). Suicide, alcohol abuse, drugs, protests without clear legislative goals—these are all symptoms of what Nouwen calls convulsion. They can’t see an answer, but because authority is untrustworthy, the answers of the government and the Church must necessarily be wrong. In the quarantined world of today, symptoms of convulsion are the desire to go out and party. If there’s no hope for the future and the world is lost anyway, why should they not enjoy themselves with the little time they’ve got left?

Hence, the form of authority the Church needs to rely on is accompaniment, as Pope Francis would say, or hospitality, as Nouwen would say. A dictatorial form of authority will not work for a group of people who have learned to reject dictatorial authority, because the groups who claim such authority have hurt them. The Church, which is seen in some ways as enabling child abuse, cannot say on its own authority: “Pray. It will calm you.” It must earn a different kind of authority.[1] And this is the perfect opportunity, because most people will become seekers. By becoming the peer of the seeker, the Church can lead the seeker to hope and growth. Because people have fewer distractions, they are turning inward.

How can the Church gain the authority it needs to offer healing and hope in this time of suffering? Obviously, the goal of ministry is to lead people to growth. But the promise (and threat) of “Heaven, Hell, Purgatory” (18) are not motivating for the modern seeker because the Church has lost its authority for many. In this moment of crisis, there are Christians, even some Catholics, arguing that our spirits are more important than our bodies, so we should go to church, despite the scientific consensus that this will kill people. Of course, this will make the Church lose even more of its authority, when its reputation has already been tarnished by decades of mismanaging the sexual abuse crisis.

Nouwen offers great insights on gaining this authority.. He has already identified a problem, and the problem is intensifying. Now, we must learn from his proposed solution.

He offers compassion as the way that a Christian minister gains authority, as it answers the problem of fatherlessness directly (45). He writes, “Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence…that our neighbor really is our fellow human being” (45). Compassion allows us to look into that inward, fatherless, and convulsive person, and see ourselves in them. As Christians, we might want to believe that we’re not inward. But if we look deeply, we understand that we are familiar with the temptation to not rely on God. We like to believe that we’re not fatherless, but everyone knows the feeling of wanting to be accepted by someone their own age—maybe a crush, maybe a popular person, maybe a friend. We like to believe that we’re not convulsive, but right now, in the fear of the coronavirus, many of us have felt the temptation to give up. The authority of compassion can respond to the desire to be led by a peer, while offering the central Christian message, which is hope in the resurrection. Through compassion, I can show you that I have the same fears, the same struggles, as you, but that because I have tended to them, I can enter into yours and help you heal. Hence, we are in some ways “peers”, in that I derive my authority from similarity, but I am not one who desires to lead you in a destructive way. I want to use our similarity to offer you the love of God and the hope of the resurrection, along with positive, creative outlets.

The example for the Christian is always Christ. In what way do we see Christ active today? Nouwen offers us an insight, referencing a legend from the Talmud. Most of the poor, covered with wounds, unbind all their wounds at once, then rebind all of them (88). “But he [the Messiah] unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying ‘Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment” (88).

Who do we see binding one wound at a time, so that they can be of service to those who need it? Medical professionals are one example. Some medical professionals are even living in hotels so as to not expose their families to sickness. They bear the wound of not being with those who would be the most supportive so that they can help those in need. They are sharing the loneliness of the sick person who cannot be visited by the one they love. This is not to mention the immense psychological toll of being unable to save everyone, which can help them enter the pain of the person they are watching die alone. But none of these pains stop them from taking the necessary risks to serve those suffering. They are acting with true compassion—entering into the suffering of the sick, putting themselves at risk, and doing their best to share and alleviate the suffering. Given that we see Christ in the medical worker, what can a Christian minister learn?

The compassion of the medical worker is an example to the Christian minister. Despite changes in our lifestyles, we can still be compassionate. The inward, fatherless, and convulsive people now have all sorts of time to express their desire for something deeper, and Christian ministers have more time to speak with them as our programming drops. Without having to run speaker series, because nobody can come to them, we have more time to have a one-on-one phone conversation with a seeking person. The person at the parish, whom you know well and nobody else does, is probably seeking. Call her. Listen to how she’s doing. Ask questions. Talk about how she’s doing. If she wants, she might say, “Why? Where is God?” You can offer the witness of a God who experienced human suffering and is willing to share her suffering today. You can’t do it in person; but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

Nouwen knows that the minister feels unnecessary. The modern person, who is fatherless and inward, does not want a minister who gives them hope out of a tired old story they’ve heard a thousand times. But Nouwen also recognizes that when all the distractions go away, the person will search for meaning. With no opportunity to get drunk with their friends, that 22-year-old college senior who just lost his graduation experience, will be forced to reflect. This is the time the Christian minister can be useful. People could lose all sense of hope as their friends die, they lose their jobs, and they live alone. But the Christian minister can resist that. There is a hope of healing, whether before or after death (82). This hope is one of connection. The suffering of meaninglessness, of not seeing a way out, can be overtaken with connection, as we live as the Body of Christ. You, the minister, are the first sacrament of that connection.

In short, Nouwen has keenly identified the state of the world. He identifies the current state of the unchurched as one of inwardness, convulsion, and fatherlessness. The pandemic will only exacerbate this as we distance. The Christian minister has the opportunity, if they use compassion as their form of authority, under the example of the medical doctor or nurse, to offer hope that the world is now more ready to receive.

Nick Frega is a pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Parish in Newton MA, working in liturgy, faith formation, and bereavement. He has an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a BA in Religious Studies and Politics from Fairfield University

[1] Of course, the authority of the peer group is not one we prefer to the authority of the father. It can lead to crushing shame when a person feels they have let their peers down (Nouwen 37). The point is not to argue in favor of that kind of authority, just to recognize it as real and a truth we need to respond to.

In a Pandemic, Our Whole Lives Are Sacramental and Liturgical

It was the middle of Lent when the general public of the United States realized, in a dramatic and sudden fashion, that we were facing a global pandemic. As businesses closed, jobs were lost, physical contact was cut off, and schedules and calendars dramatically altered, the human race found itself in a seemingly unprecedented, universal experience of Lent. It was a Lent underscored, highlighted, and punctuated with not just abstinence, but absence: absence of normality, participation, physical presence, and a sense of the future. Like a well-written screenplay heightened by a carefully crafted dramatic score, the experience of Lent was amplified through the novel coronavirus. The coronavirus and Lent taken together had a consonant sound and meaning.

But, now, the Exsultet has been pronounced. The paschal candle has been lit. We now find ourselves in the season of Easter, yet the pandemic continues its course and absence still is felt. How are we, as Christians, just a few days ago present with Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Christ, finding ourselves in such a state of cognitive dissonance? How are we to move forward with Easter joy, ourselves following the command to “go and tell,” when people continue to die, loved ones lose their jobs, and we still face an uncertain future? To shelter ourselves from cognitive dissonance, it may be easier to remain in Lent, to feel as if the Resurrection didn’t happen, to assume that Christ remains in the tomb.

How are we to move forward? The Church shows us. Every year, whether with or without a global pandemic, after Easter, the Church herself continues forward. With Christ’s Resurrection, Lent concludes. Mother Church accompanies us, inviting us to live each day more deeply in the Resurrection of Christ. She also asks us, the baptized, to accompany her newest children, neophytes who have received the sacraments of initiation at Easter. The Church moves forward together, past the boundaries of sacred and profane. During the Easter season, the Church’s focus is to help neophytes “grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives through meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and doing the works of charity” (RCIA, #244). In other words, in the Easter season, the Church seeks to mature and extend what the neophytes have experienced in their journey of the catechumenate and in receiving the sacraments for the first time. The Church moves forward together towards integration, an elimination of the boundaries that separate our “faith life” from “the rest” of our life. The Church invites us to consider in community how we are being saved through all of our life, not just the parts that we or our culture name sacred or religious. In other words, the Church invites us to recognize the effects, emotions, and experiences of what the Paschal Mystery has worked over on us. After the trauma of the passion, death, and Resurrection, the Church herself moves forward through a practice called mystagogy.

Mystagogy is the “introduc[tion] into a fuller and more effective understanding of mysteries through the Gospel…and experience of the sacraments” (RCIA, #245). It unfolds in an encounter with beauty in the liturgy that leaves us craving more, seeking connections between our life and the Church’s sacramental life. The ancient mystagogues such as Augustine and Cyril invited the faithful to this process through sermons, expounding upon liturgical and sacramental signs by connecting these outward signs to meanings and uses in scripture and culture. We continue the example of Augustine and Cyril when we open ourselves up to the inbreaking of meaning of the liturgy and sacraments for our entire lives through mystagogy. In mystagogy, the Church elucidates how the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus spills over into every area of the neophytes’ lives through sacramental and liturgical signs. Mystagogy is neither teaching nor learning; it is neither simply reflection nor contemplation. Rather,

“[mystagogy] is less an explanation and more an exploration; it is less an explication and more an evocation. It works like sonar: it plumbs the depths not to deny the depths, but rather to point out how deep they actually are. It works like diving gear: it allows one to breathe in depths otherwise inaccessible and to swim down and surface buried treasures otherwise overlooked.” (Augustine and the Catechumenate, 424).

Mystagogy is not an intellectual treatise on theology that holds a particular set of canons or tenets. It is the viewing of something from different angles, a method of beholding mystery from different vantage points. In mystagogy, we are invited to let go of our narrow view of what the sacraments, liturgy, and the nature of Christ are about. Mystagogy seeks not simply to form us intellectually in our faith experiences of the liturgy and sacraments, but rather incites our curiosity to discover what sacramental and liturgical meanings lie at the heart of our cultural, societal, and personal experience. It breaks down what we hide from God, opens us up to be freely overtaken by the waters that washed us in Baptism.

How does the novel coronavirus invite us to be mystagogues ourselves, seeking meaning in our sacramental experiences in this season of Easter? What is the subject of our mystagogy when we cannot receive the sacraments? Mystagogy’s points of departure are liturgical elements, such as what meaning for our Christian lives sacred chrism holds, or how the sacredness of water at baptism spills over to our use of water in our culture and society. However, in a moment where many of us have not experienced the sacraments in months, coronavirus invites us to a reverse mystagogy, to see our very lives as the liturgical and sacramental signs themselves. In this reverse mystagogy, we see that at the heart of our sacramental life as Christians is the mystery of the Incarnation broken through in our human experience:

“Sacraments are not exceptional and extraordinary events; they are standard and ordinary- like baths and dinners, kisses and loving touches, hugs and perfume, prayers and celebrations.” (Aidan Kavanagh)

In a time of this pandemic, we are invited by our painful situation to start with the premise that our lives, in every situation, are sacramental and liturgical. What meaning does our morning ritual of drinking coffee and reading the newspaper hold? Where is God in my choice to be patient with my partner in the midst of conflict and tension? Like the sacramental and liturgical signs explored in traditional mystagogy, this reverse mystagogy invites us to consider how the stuff of our lives leads us to behold the Mystery of God from several vantage points, from the cultural, liturgical, and spiritual, but also from the living room, the home office, and the neighborhood streets. Our relationships, hobbies, and concerns all speak loudly about what we love, hold dear, and would give our lives for. Have we considered that their words speak a spiritual meaning over the whole of our lives?

In being invited to mystagogy during this pandemic, we are invited to consider that the absences and voids we are experiencing are leading us somewhere, past the boundary between our spiritual lives and “regular” lives. We are being invited to see with a new vision, that it is all spiritual and sacramental. The absence of daily routines, the separation of loved ones, and the lack of comforting and friendly physical touch are themselves visible signs of invisible reality. The act of preparing a meal or calling a dear friend from a distance or the time spent with those already in our homes calls to us deeper meanings that speak to our human existence and our need for God. For all of us, there is a lack of something that we previously had before this time, a hunger for something we have tasted before. As Alexander Schmemann says, “Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God.”  We are hungry for something we have tasted before the stay at home orders, the empty grocery store shelves, the lay-offs, and the feelings of perpetual anxiety. But this thing, whatever or whomever it is for each of us, points us beyond to a feeling of hunger that will not be satisfied in this life.

This is the process of mystagogy: to move us forward. What we know about our faith and how we relate to God is deepened through its discipline. The longing, sadness, confusion, and anomie we feel without the presence of one another and the safety of our routines before this point back to our participation in the liturgy itself. That we, in the life we are living now, without ready access to the liturgy and sacraments as celebrated before, are called to recognize our original posture, which Schmemann calls homo adorans: “The first basic definition of [the human being] is that [they] are the the priest. [They] stan[d] in the center of the world and unif[y] it in [their] act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God.” In this situation in which we find ourselves, we are being called to unify what we name as sacred and secular and consider that all is an invitation to worship and bless. The pandemic invites us to this process of mystagogy, of recalling that our everyday lives are instruments of grace, that when contemplated, they reveal the meaning at the heart of our human lives: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17).

Colleen Campbell holds a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas, an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently a PhD candidate studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.