The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS.
The requirement to practice social distancing means that many more U.S. Catholics are going to attend a Communion service on Sunday rather than a Mass. Many Catholics will not notice the difference or may even prefer the Communion service.
When churches begin opening, social distancing will allow fewer people to attend Mass at the same time, which means more services will be required. Granted the scarcity of Catholic priests, and their average age, there will not be enough priests with sufficient stamina to do all these services. Therefore, some of the services will not be Masses but Communion services.
A Communion service looks very much like a Mass but is presided over by a deacon or layperson rather than a priest, because it does not have a moment of consecration, which only the priest can perform. At a Communion service, you will not hear the words, “This is my body. … This is my blood. … ” Instead, the deacon or layperson distributes hosts that have been consecrated at a Mass, then stored in the tabernacle until needed.
Communion services are very common in areas where there are few priests. Even in the U.S., Communion services may occur on Sundays and weekdays in rural and mountain states such as Idaho, where there is a shortage of priests and Catholics are widely dispersed.
In rural areas, a priest might be responsible for several widely dispersed parishes that he visits once a month. During his visit, he celebrates Mass and fills the tabernacle with enough hosts for the rest of the month. When the priest is absent, a deacon or layperson (man or woman) presides over the Communion service.
Even in urban areas, a parish with a resident pastor might have a Communion service on a weekday if the priest is sick or away.
The Communion service begins with a liturgy of the Word that is almost exactly like that at a Mass. Songs are sung, prayers are recited, Scriptures are read and a sermon is given. Those paying attention will notice slight differences, such as the absence of references to “sacrifice,” because a Communion service is not a sacrifice as the Mass is.
The noticeable changes begin after the general intercessions (aka prayers of the faithful). There is no presentation of gifts (what Catholics used to call the offertory) nor is there the Eucharistic prayer, which includes the consecration of the gifts. Instead, after the general intercessions, the presider and the community recite the Lord’s Prayer, exchange the sign of peace, and then receive Communion. There can be songs at the appropriate times plus a final prayer, blessing and dismissal.
During the pandemic, of course, the sign of peace must avoid physical contact, and Communion will be administered under strict guidelines to prevent the spread of infection.
The coronavirus may force U.S. Catholics to experience what has long been a reality for Catholics in parts of the world, like the Amazon, where there are many Catholics and few priests. In these regions, Communion services are very common, although it is difficult to store consecrated hosts for long periods of time in the tropics.
Preparing the American Catholics for Communion services will not be easy.
“The faithful should be instructed carefully that, even when they receive communion outside Mass, they are closely united with the sacrifice which perpetuates the sacrifice of the cross,” states the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship in its 1973 document “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass.”
“They are sharers in the sacred banquet,” the document continues, in which “by communion in the body and blood of the Lord the people of God shares in the blessings of the paschal sacrifice.”
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Source: Religion News Service