David's Weekly Reflection


We don’t hear much today about the Church’s use of an Interdict, and thankfully so. In conflicts in the Middle Ages between kings and popes, placing an interdict on a country was a kind of nuclear strike, the most drastic and ultimate punishment available to a pope. 

An interdict, as used in the Church, is a total prohibition of the celebration of the sacraments. It may be applied to persons, as when a bishop orders a priest to cease from all and every sacramental action, or to a territory where the pope orders all acts of public worship to cease in its churches. 

Interdicts are associated with Pope Innocent III in his struggles to stop rulers from violating the rights of the Church. One example was England’s infamous King John who attempted to block the Pope’s appointment of Stephen Langton from taking possession of the see of Canterbury. Faced with the king’s intransigence, Pope Innocent placed an interdict on the whole kingdom of England in 1208 which lasted until May 1213 when the King submitted to Pope Innocent III in the hope of getting his support against the rebellious barons. Archbishop Langton would play a leading part in the peace talks that led to both sides signing the famous Magna Carta in 1215. 

You might wonder why I am talking about interdicts at all, since they have long since disappeared from the Church history.  The current shut down or shut out of the faithful is very similar to what happened in England when Innocent III placed an interdict on the English Church—locked churches, no public Mass, no confessions or other sacraments. 

There are two important differences though. The interdict today, if I may call it, comes from the government, and our bishops are hastening to obey, not the Pope but the secular power in the form of the medical authorities. And the same has happened over the past few months in Rome, the US and the UK as well as Ireland, indeed across the world.  

And yes, our government is decidedly secular, and takes pains to let us know this. When the Taoiseach made his emergency address to the nation in March, there was no reference to the world above, no reference to the churches, religious practices at this time, and the mercy and providence of God. The programme for managing the pandemic was couched in terms of an earthly community and various practical measures to control its spread. It raises puzzling questions, does it not?

RTE showed more understanding of the importance of religious practice in the current emergency, televising three beautiful Masses from the cathedral in Mullingar during Holy Week. 

Which brings me to the second difference. Unlike the Christians nine centuries ago, we have the internet, the webcam and mobile phones.  Since Covid-19 has shut our churches and lockdown started in March, televised Masses have become the norm for Catholics. How do we take part in a “virtual Mass” on television whether transmitted live or recorded?  Is it the same as taking part at Mass in our parish church? Is watching the images on the screen equivalent to being physically present and are we part of the sacramental Eucharist? 

Pope Francis’ daily Masses at his residence of Santa Marta in the Vatican have been televised, and viewed across Italy by some 1.7 million people, which is some record. Yet, voices from all sides have been raised warning that “this is not the Church”, nor the Eucharistic assembly and, while without doubt helping people during this life-and-death pandemic, is not the living and real participation in the sacramental action.

During his April 17 Mass, Pope Francis added this warning, and explained that a “virtual” or “viralised” church is not the real Church. In his own words [...] This familiarity with the Lord of Christians, is always communal. Yes, it is intimate, it is personal, but in community. 

A virtual familiarity without community, a familiarity without the Bread, a familiarity without the Church, without the people, without the sacraments, is dangerous. It can become a familiarity that is gnostic, a familiarity for me alone, detached from the people of God. The familiarity of the apostles with the Lord was always communal, was always at the table, a sign of community. It was always with the Sacrament, with the Bread.

The Church, the Sacraments, the people are concrete realities, not the virtual replicas through our electronic devices. The Eucharist is not a virtual sacrament, nor the Church a virtual community. 

Yes, I believe the Pope is absolutely correct. While the televising of Mass has been a most valuable support for believers over the past two months, we should not begin to think that it is equivalent to being really present in our parish church. This is where the risen Lord is really and truly present, and the electronic reproduction is not the same reality. Any more than a spiritual communion is equivalent to receiving the Bread of Life on your tongue. No, it is not. 

So let us keep this in mind, retain the absolute primacy of the living and real participation in the Mass, compared to electronically mediated images.  

Let me end with Pope Francis’ concluding prayer:

May the Lord teach us this intimacy with Him, this familiarity with Him but in the Church, with the sacraments, with the holy faithful people of God.

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