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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Vatican's liturgy chief is declaring it "urgent" that Catholics to return to the sacraments — in person.
In a letter sent to the world's bishops this week, Cdl. Robert Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, warned that virtual participation in Mass on TV or online is not sufficient to sustain Christian life.
"This community dimension has a theological meaning: God is a relationship of Persons in the Most Holy Trinity." Sarah wrote. God "puts Himself in relationship with man and woman and calls them in turn to relationship with Him."
"The pandemic caused by the new coronavirus has produced upheavals," he maintained, not only in social and familial relationships, "but also in the life of the Christian community, including the liturgical dimension."
Titled, "Let us return to the Eucharist with joy!" the communiqué was addressed to the presidents of bishops' conferences.
Sarah insisted that Christian life cannot be sustained without the personal presence of the Church community at the Sacrifice of the Mass. "The house of the Lord presupposes the presence of the family of the children of God," he contended.
While the Church should be attentive to safety protocols amid the Wuhan virus pandemic, "liturgical norms are not matters on which civil authorities can legislate, but only the competent ecclesiastical authorities," he wrote.
The letter mentioned that bishops can make provisional changes to liturgical rubrics in order to accommodate public health concerns, and lauded bishops for creative actions:
In listening to and collaborating with civil authorities and experts, [bishops] were prompt to make difficult and painful decisions, even to the point of suspending the participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist for a long period. This Congregation is deeply grateful to the bishops for their commitment and effort in trying to respond in the best possible way to an unforeseen and complex situation.
Nevertheless, Sarah urged bishops to return to normalcy of liturgy as soon as reasonably possible:
As soon as circumstances permit, however, it is necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life, which has the church building as its home and the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; and at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).
As soon as is possible ... we must return to the Eucharist with a purified heart, with a renewed amazement, with an increased desire to meet the Lord, to be with Him, to receive Him and to bring Him to our brothers and sisters with the witness of a life full of faith, love and hope.
Celebrating the Eucharist is not optional, stressed the cardinal. It is not a divine gift that can be neglected or substituted for something else. As he expounded, it is the Bread from Heaven offered to humanity to sustain and nourish the faithful:
We cannot be without the banquet of the Eucharist, the table of the Lord to which we are invited as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters to receive the Risen Christ Himself, present in Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in that Bread of Heaven which sustains us in the joys and labors of this earthly pilgrimage.
Further, the Mass not only contains our spiritual nourishment and the words of everlasting life (John 6:68), but, as Sarah explained, it requires the participation of the faithful in the sacrifice of Christ. Those present at Mass are offered to the Father with Jesus in atonement for our sins:
We cannot live as Christians without participating in the Sacrifice of the Cross in which the Lord Jesus gave himself unreservedly to save, by his death, humanity which had died because of sin ... [I]n the embrace of the Crucified One all human suffering finds light and comfort. ... [We] cannot be without the Christian community. [We] cannot be without the house of the Lord.
Although TV broadcasts may have been a temporary stopgap amid a pandemic, Sarah stressed they "alone risk distancing us from the personal and intimate encounter with the incarnate God — who gave Himself to us not in a virtual way."
As if to address certain controversies that have arisen within this time of adaptation, like Communion on the tongue, Sarah recognized the right of the bishops to temporarily suspend certain customs and practices until it is deemed safe to return to ecclesial norms.
"In times of difficulty (e.g., wars, pandemics), bishops and episcopal conferences can give provisional norms which must be obeyed," he wrote. "Obedience safeguards the treasure entrusted to the Church. These measures given by the bishops and episcopal conferences expire when the situation returns to normal."
Toward the end of the letter, Sarah put it all in perspective.
[The Church] bears witness to hope, invites us to trust in God, recalls that earthly existence is important, but much more important is eternal life: Sharing the same life with God for eternity is our goal, our vocation. This is the faith of the Church, witnessed over the centuries by hosts of martyrs and saints.
Before its promulgation this week, the letter was written Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, and approved by Pope Francis Sept. 3.