Mass in the Time of Pandemic

Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB reflects on the texts of ‘Mass in the Time of Pandemic’, recently approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

The text is available here as a PDF file.

T.S. Eliot has a line, “April is the cruellest month.” To be honest, I never understood it. Well, I will now. I’m afraid this April will prove a cruel month, the cruellest to date.

So, what can we say to ourselves? Perhaps that there will be an “afterwards”, and that “afterwards” – already happening – will be full of testimonies to human resourcefulness and resilience. Testimonies in art, not least. Poetry is already abroad, and there’ll be more. Along with the memorials to those who have died, there’ll be music and dance and literature and humour, some remarkable photography of emptied cities. Along with elements of unadorned tragedy, and tales of criminal exploitation and selfishness, and the usual evidence of our capacity to play any set of circumstances to our own private advantage, how many narratives of inspiration and kindness and heroism. You may have heard of the story of Fr Berardelli in North Italy. Prophetically perhaps, Pope Francis recently opened up a new way or route to beatification or canonization. He called it the way of “life-offering”. It would be exemplified by a Christian who has lived hitherto a good, but ordinarily good, Christian life and who then finds her- or himself in a situation which calls for something exceptional, which involves a real service to their neighbour at the risk of life and who in that service lose their life. One might think of those brave Christians who imperilled themselves sheltering Jews during World War II. A life-threatening pandemic is precisely a setting for this kind of life-choice, life-gesture, life-offering. Part of the “afterwards” of this cruel thing will be the discovery of saints, canonized or not.

That’s pitching it rather high. I don’t want to encourage reckless heroics. But there is a history in the making here – plenty for Ph. D. students in the future! – and we can opt to play a positive part in it. We can make a small contribution to the outburst of resourcefulness and creativity. Perhaps it’s like the old thing, “Daddy, what did you do during the war?”

Back to Tolkien: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

“What to do”. Human beings are creative. We can be creative in prayer, as well. It is happening, both in quality and in quantity. The Holy Spirit, after all, is the divine resourcefulness in person and the inspirer of prayer. I’m talking about prayer – the raising of the heart and mind to God – and the prayers that can help us get off the ground. The Holy Spirit provides both and Mother Church has a treasure-house of both. In our Liturgy, in our Prayer Books there are already Masses for wartime and civil upheaval, for famine, earthquake and storms, for bushfires and floods and cyclones. Since last week, courtesy of the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome, we now have a Mass “in time of pandemic”. In face of this insidious threat, we can raise the banner of the Eucharist.

I just want to have a look at two of the texts in this new Mass formulary, and then at one of the suggested readings.

Of the texts, I would just like to look at the Entrance Antiphon and the Collect.

An Entrance Antiphon should be the first words we hear at Mass, even before “In the name of…” They are there to arrest our attention and focus ourselves. They are the opening chord or motif.

The one for Mass in time of Pandemic is:

Truly the Lord has borne our infirmities,

And he has carried our sorrows.

This is taken from Isaiah 53:4. It is from one of four passages in Isaiah that relate to a mysterious figure called the Servant. We heard one yesterday, Palm Sunday, and today, and we will again on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Good Friday we’ll hear the great passage from Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12. These passages were known to Jesus, a Jew who, through home and synagogue, knew his Bible. They formed his self-understanding. He was the one who would be despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and familiar with grief, who would offer his life in atonement and yet justify many. The New Testament refers to these passages. You will notice             “Truly the Lord has borne our infirmities.” “Lord” is not in Isaiah. It has been added in this translation to draw attention to Jesus himself. So, at the beginning of this Eucharist, we are turned to him. We are shown Jesus. We are shown the One who has borne, carried, undergone, experienced our weakness, sorrows, infirmities. The One who has entered into solidarity all the way to death on a Cross. At the same time – there is a deliberate ambiguity here – the One who bears away, carries away our afflictions. His glorified body is pure health. So this Mass opens with a vision of the suffering and glorified Christ.

Here is the Collect.

“Almighty and eternal God, our refuge in every danger, to whom we turn in our distress; in faith we pray: look with compassion on the afflicted, grant eternal rest to the dead, comfort to mourners, healing to the sick, peace to the dying, strength to healthcare workers, wisdom to our leaders and the courage to reach out to all in love, so that together we give glory to your holy name. Through our Lord etc.”

It is rather wordy. It is anxious to tick every box. But I still think it can guide our prayer. Like any Collect, it begins by calling on God: “Almighty and eternal God, our refuge in every danger”. Whenever we pray, we begin by putting ourselves in the presence; it’s an act of faith and an expression of our need. Here we take refuge under his wings. That done, we start to ask: “Look with the compassion on the afflicted”. Isn’t it God’s compassion, his healing co-suffering we need? Then the Prayer gets its hands dirty, as it were, gets down to business. We ask for the white light of God’s compassion to be broken into seven particulars. We ask for the divine compassion to pour down the mountain of refuge like a waterfall and fill every corner of our affliction, “Grant eternal rest etc.” Seven categories of persons are named: the dead, mourners, the sick and the dying, the care workers, leaders, “all”. Seven gifts are asked for: rest, comfort, healing, peace, strength, wisdom and courage. Seven suggests fullness. We are asking God to throw the mantle of compassion over the whole of humanity affected by a pandemic, his compassion subsuming our passion, as it were. An all-pervading pandemic calls for an all-embracing prayer.  And why? To what effect? “So that together we may give glory to your holy name.”  We give glory when we see God’s glory. We remember the Psalm: “Let your face shine upon us, O Lord, and we shall be saved”. We’re praying like the prophet Habakkuk: “Lord, I have heard of your renown; your work, Lord, inspires me with awe. Make it live again in our time, make it known in our time; in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2). Going back to “afterwards”, we’re asking God that we may come to remember this not just as catastrophe, but as an experience of compassion as well; that we will have memories of mercies. So, perhaps this prayer can guide our prayer – in a time of pandemic.

Let’s turn now to another element, one of the possible readings. I take the one from ch. 3 of Lamentations, vv. 17-26. “My soul is shut out from peace, I have forgotten happiness. And now I say, ‘My strength is gone, that hope which came from the Lord.’ Brooding on my anguish and affliction is gall and wormwood. My spirit ponders it continually and sinks within me. This is what I shall tell my heart and so recover hope: the favours of the Lord are not all past, his kindnesses are not exhausted; every morning they are renewed; great is his faithfulness. ‘My portion is the Lord’, says my soul, ‘and so I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who trust him, to the soul that searches for him. It is good to wait in silence for the Lord to save.”

The Old Testament Book of Lamentations is short – 5 chapters. 5 poems, 5 laments, all to do with the destruction of the city and Temple of Jerusalem by the Babylonian military in 586 B.C. It is a prime example of a creative response to a catastrophe. Catastrophe it certainly was. For Israel, her whole world went under, not excluding its image of God. No wonder then that in the Jewish Liturgy it features on the 9th day of the month of Av, a fast day, when Jews commemorate this destruction of the Temple, as well as that of 70 A.D., and indeed other disasters in Jewish history. It has become paradigmatic of human woe. In the Christian liturgy, it features in Holy Week. Music accompanies both Jewish and Christian settings. There is a beautiful plainchant setting. Many famous composers have deployed their gifts and the texts have been fitted to a gamut of historical experiences. After the bombing of Dresden in 1945, a German composer, Rudolf Mauersberger produced a motet on some verses – one situation, one name among many. This Book could hardly be more to the current point. Just hear its first line: “How deserted she sits, the city once thronged with people!” (Lam 1:1).

In Ch. 3, which is the heart of the book, a single voice speaks. I simply signal the turn to hope at the halfway point; it’s very gentle. “This is what I shall tell my heart”. Let’s talk wisdom to ourselves. Let’s think upwards and back. The poet sets himself to remember; he uses memory to revive hope. He recalls the goodness of God to Israel, his kindnesses-mercies and his faithfulness, the wellsprings of the Lord’s covenant. He thinks of the suffering as a brief night succeeded by a morning. What do we tell our hearts and tell each other at such a time? Here is Holy Week. It is a time for self-communing, for prayer and meditation as the Queen mentioned, and it ends with the brightest of all mornings. Think of the women going to the tomb as day was breaking! Isn’t it extraordinary that things should be moving to their peak during this very liturgical time? On Good Friday, what did Mary tell her pierced heart under the Cross? During the Paschal lockdown of Holy Saturday, waiting in silence for the Lord to save, what did she tell Mary of Magdala and the other Mary? What did she tell the beloved disciple and shattered Peter, so they could recover hope? Was it these words?

That’s enough! Do please do what you can to follow Holy Week from home. One young mother asked me, how do we make our home a place of prayer? Have a specific place for it, a specific daily time, and a set of prayers and / or readings, however short, to use.

I began with a poet. Let me end with another, Seamus Heaney: “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”.

God bless you!


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