Making Sacramental Adjustments

The Government of Alberta updated public health guidelines on November 24th, 2020, to assist worshipers mitigate surging COVID-19 transmission. Activities referenced in the new guidelines included rituals, catechesis, charitable, or temporal business, activities. Faith-based gatherings continue to be settings for large COVID-19 outbreaks. The legislation emphasized the responsibility parish leaders have for protecting the broader community. Bishops of Alberta endorsed these updated guidelines, insisting that the faithful follow, or exceed, the updated public health orders across their respective dioceses.

On the chief medical officer’s recommendations, the ministry of public health imposed these mandatory restrictions taking effect on November 24th, 2020.

  1. No indoor or outdoor social gatherings in any setting permitted.

  2. Weddings and funeral services must not exceed ten attendees.

  3. Festivals and events are canceled or postponed.

  4.  Grade 7 thru 12 students must attend home learning between November 30th and January 11th, 2021.

  5. Places of worship may accommodate attendees for regular services in numbers not exceeding 1/3rd of their fire code regulations.

  6. Liturgical participants, including the clergy, must wear face coverings, when not speaking.

 

The evolving restrictions affect baptisms, marriages, funerals, spiritual direction, catechesis, and sacramental praxis. Religious leaders, under these measures, are legally obliged to inform congregants of the new requirements underway, to attenuate the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Parishioners with a history of international travel or proximity to a confirmed COVID-19 case, under CMOH order 05-2020, are legally and morally bound to avoid worship places.[1] Parishes must also provide hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol content at entrances and exits. Congregants must preregister and check-in with hospitality ministers, responsible for collecting contact information, and directing people to assigned seating. Signage in multiple languages and prominent locations urges compliance with the revised public health directives. These much stricter directives, while generally accepted, have caused an amount of unrest for some who suggest the measures violate the Canadian Charter of Rights.[2]  

Life passages such as death, marriage, and birth give people cause to rethink their involvement in communal life. Festive seasons, such as Christmas and Easter, are also occasions when people examine their conscience, realizing just how integrated are culture and sacramental praxis. For many the birth of a new child provides the impetus to re-explore faith and tradition. The Christian community seeks and welcomes all its adjunct members into deeper sacred fellowship. Spiritual beings reaching back into their lives during these times seek reconciliation and direction to the tables of Word and Eucharist. Couples looking towards the church envision a holy and secular day, when their union is blessed and publicly validated. The pandemic offers the world a special moment to pause and embrace all people's spiritual journeys. Isolation policies, imposed by secular governance, actually gives people a reason to enter into a spiritual retreat. Ancient and proven sacramental constructs also aligns with secularism's need to express special familial occasions, publicly. Perhaps, this prolonged period of disrupted sacramental praxis will stimulate deeper conversion within people on the church's fringes. We wonder if absence truly makes the heart grow fonder?[3]   Lapsed practitioners often re-visit their faith at natural intervals and hospitality ministry plays a critical role being the first point of physical contact.

  

The National Bulletin on Liturgy 12 number 71 (1979) explained and emphasized how Sunday Eucharist is both the source and summit of the Christian life. This directive clearly articulates that as Church, we come together to offer common thanks to God, and we go forth strengthened to serve one another, as Christ modeled. Inspiring more profound sacramental participation in busy societies was already a pastoral challenge. "Stay at home" orders that reduce an amount of secularism busyness, opens opportunities for increased prayerfulness.

The Reform churches generally recognized fewer sacraments, eventually landing on baptism and Eucharist as that movement's Christological grounded sacraments. Indeed, other disputes arose throughout history, but for the most part, Protestant denominations place minor emphasis on sacraments. Catholicism's deep affection for its sacramental construct reopens scars imposed by either voluntarily or mandatory, prolonged gathering restrictions. The Reform traditions seemed to insist on scriptural arbitration, which may no longer represent a gap towards healing Christian unity, it did in the past.[4] Concluding that Jesus the Christ holds primacy in the Church, allows baptism to presents itself as the logical ecumenical gathering point.[5] We could say that baptism is like Christianity’s narthex. Could COVID-19 be the nudge that people of good faith are awaiting to push towards healing familial division.[6] Paradoxically, Catholics now turn towards the Sacred Scriptures for greater spiritual nourishment, while the pandemic moves its separated brothers and sisters into deeper sacramental appreciation.[7]

Families scattered to online learning, from Catholic education, miss an amount of support normally offered at the parish level. The formation triage consisting of parents, educators, and catechists was forced to consider redistributing teaching workload under current circumstances. Physical dispersion creates nebulous conditions, which threatens recollection and cohesion. Out of sight, out of mind![8] The pandemic challenges the liturgical, "sending forth" instruction, which always directs the assembly to resist prolonged separation and division. Go in peace, yes,  but gather again!

Eucharistic people bring deep sacramental understanding into any charitable outreach. Whenever faith inspires believers to visit prisons, deliver food to the hungry, provide clothing for the naked, or offer their companionship to the lonely, the Church's mission continues. The Christian community's post-pandemic response might be forced to pool its resources in order to accomplish this formidable and growing task. A more collaborative and charitable approach across faith and secular networks generates less confusion and greater efficacy. Leadership steps-up in these moments to galvanize and inspire people, left to carry a workload , that overlaps with an economic downturn and massive layoffs. The church's labor force is not spared from temporal hardships in the face of this nasty health crisis.

In the numerous healings, Jesus performed, he simply pardoned the afflicted of their sins and transgressions. Elaborate rituals never seemed to accompany Jesus' acts of mercy.  However, if the Church hopes to benefit from this disruption it must continue to make God's revelation ubiquitous. The sacraments of initiation, healing, and service vitally connect humankind to God's will in every generation and circumstance. While COVID-19 has interrupted comfortable living for many, sacramental praxis occurs in the present tense, just as St Paul reminds believers, to pray always.

 

[1] Record of decision of the Chief Medical Officer of Health requiring that any person who is a confirmed case of COVID-19 be in isolation for a minimum of 10 days from the start of their symptoms, or until symptoms resolve, whichever is longer. Also requires that any person returning to Alberta after having travelled internationally, and any person who is a close contact of a person confirmed with having COVID-19, must be in quarantine for a minimum 14-day period.

[2] Under section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights, everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: “(a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.

[3] Proverb credited to Sextus Propertius, a Roman poet during the time of Jesus from the first of four books called Cynthia.

[4] Scriptura Sola is a foundational Reform doctrine that holds the Bible as the supreme authority in matters of faith.

[5] The Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry (BEM) document produced by the World Council of Churches in 1982 emerged from the ecumenical Lima Accord.

[6] World faith leaders are speaking more fraternally. See Pope Francis’ (2020) ENCYCLICAL LETTER
FRATELLI TUTTI OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCISON FRATERNITY AND SOCIAL FRIENDSHIP.

[7] The same phenomenon experienced through diverse religious lens.

[8] A proverb referring to humankind short attention span.