Friday, July 07, 2006

N.Z. Bishops' Plan: For the Birds?

Here is a link to a story about a bird flu outbreak in New Zealand:,2106,3721468a10,00.html.

I call your attention to this story because it suggests an appalling ignorance concerning the nature of the Mass. Ignore, if you will, the references to “Communion wafers,” “wine,” and “bowls.” I have come to expect that kind of terminological imprecision from the secular media, and I don’t think offense was intended.

Rather, I refer to the New Zealand bishops’ contingency plan in the event of a full epidemic (which, oremus, will not come to pass). At present the public health alert status is "code white," meaning there is cause for alarm but not panic. The bishops have already ordered the exclusive use of chalices made of precious metals – metal being judged a poor conduit of disease. (So this is what it takes to ensure conformity with liturgical law?) Were the public health alert status to be upgraded to "code yellow," the bishops intend to order the cessation of Communion from the chalice and on the tongue. (Can such an order really be blameworthy under the circumstances, regardless of where one is on the liturgical spectrum?) The worst-case scenario, "code red," is an epidemic. In that event, says the report, all public worship, including funerals, will cease.

Why should there be no Masses in the event of an epidemic? Could it be because of the danger of contamination posed by the sign of peace? I presume the bishops realize that the sign of peace is optional, even if most of the faithful don’t know that. No, I don’t suppose that’s the reason for the ban.

The reason, I suspect, is that for most contemporary Catholics, fulfilling one’s Mass obligation equals receiving Communion. Why have Mass if the people cannot receive Communion? Going to Mass means receiving Communion, no? (A man in an invalid marriage once told me he knows he shouldn’t receive Communion but does so nevertheless because he does not want to “compound [his] sins by missing Mass”!)

Now for a news flash of my own: One need not receive Communion to fulfill the precept of assisting at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. It is only required that the priest communicate; in so doing, he completes the Eucharistic Sacrifice he has offered in persona Christi. The Mass is still the Mass whether everyone else or no one else present goes to Communion. To say this is not to detract from the supreme spiritual value of receiving the Sacrament with the proper dispositions, nor is it to suggest that St. Pius X or the Liturgical Movement in general was wrong to recommend frequent, even daily, Communion as the best way of participating in the Holy Sacrifice.

Admittedly, I may not know all the reasons for the New Zealand bishops’ contingency plan; I have only this report to go by. Perhaps they are simply doing what the government told them (and other religious leaders) to do. Then again, maybe not. But if my hunch is correct, what we have here is another instance of liturgical renewal gone awry. The idea of the Mass as principally the Lord’s Sacrifice, the fruit of which Sacrifice is the Sacrament (and our ability to partake of it), has been lost. If in the past the Sacrament was received too infrequently, whether because of the fasting rules or a heightened sense of personal unworthiness, today… well, you get the idea. This bird flu outbreak (officially it is not yet an epidemic) offers the New Zealand bishops a good opportunity to remind the faithful of some basic Catholic truths: – that the Mass is chiefly the Sacrifice of the Cross made present in sacramental form and only secondarily a communal meal; that the whole Christ is received under either species; that one can (and in some cases should) assist at Mass without receiving Communion, and so on. Somehow, though, I think that opportunity will be lost. What troubles me deeply is why it will be lost. There is indeed an epidemic of sorts affecting the Church in New Zealand and elsewhere. And it isn’t bird flu.

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