HURCH attendance around the world has been made difficult or precluded entirely in many territories around the globe since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even where public Masses have returned in some fashion, barriers often remain, keeping many of the faithful apart from the sacraments. The spiritual cost has been high for regular churchgoers.
Into the midst of these struggles, a beautiful letter from Rome extends a faith-filled encouragement: “Let us return to the Eucharist with joy!”
That is the title of a letter sent to the heads of episcopal conferences throughout the world by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW). The full text of the letter is available here.
Dated 15 August 2020 and signed by Cardinal Sarah, the letter was approved by Pope Francis on 3 September 2020 and began to be publicized in mid-September (see, for example, here and here).
Although many aspects of this letter deserve to be highlighted, I will limit myself to a single observation. What strikes me most is that the heart of the letter finds its inspiration in a liturgical text, namely the prayer for the dedication of a new church building.
The letter quotes the following portion of this prayer:
[…] Make this for ever a holy place […]
Here may the flood of divine grace
overwhelm human offenses,
so that your children, Father,
being dead to sin,
may be reborn to heavenly life.
Here may your faithful,
gathered around the table of the altar,
celebrate the memorial of the Paschal Mystery
and be refreshed by the banquet
of Christ’s Word and his Body.
Here may the joyful offering of praise resound,
with human voices joined to the song of Angels,
and unceasing prayer rise up to you
for the salvation of the world.
Here may the poor find mercy,
the oppressed attain true freedom,
and all the people be clothed with the dignity of your children,
until they come exultant
to the Jerusalem which is above.
The context in which Cardinal Sarah quotes this prayer is a rich reflection on Christian community, rooted in the Sacred Scriptures. As he notes: “The house of the Lord presupposes the presence of the family of the children of God.”
The Prefect further observes:
“While the pagans built temples dedicated to the divinity, to which people had no access, Christians, as soon as they enjoyed freedom of worship, immediately built places that were the domus Dei et domus ecclesiae, where the faithful could recognize themselves as the community of God, a people summoned for worship and constituted as a holy assembly.”
After reflecting on the singular importance of gathering as a Christian community, the letter states plainly: “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; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).”
Again, what strikes me most about this letter is that the CDW draws directly upon a liturgical text to make a theological argument. This may seem a simple point, but I think it is significant.
Turning to the liturgy, itself, as a source for theology is not as instinctual for many Catholics as perhaps it ought to be. This letter manages to do it simply, beautifully, and persuasively.