Sumo wrestlers attend the spring grand sumo tournament held behind closed doors at Edion Arena in Osaka on March 8 because of the outbreak of the coronavirus. (Photo: AFP)
It is the spring sumo season in Japan, one of the six two-week periods of the year when the national sport is played out before huge crowds. But not this year. The media are showing the wrestling tournament taking place in an empty venue. Spectators are banned from the arena.
In various parts of the world, especially perhaps in Asia, bishops have cancelled Sunday Masses and other gatherings as a preventative measure against the spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, a potentially fatal infection that seems headed to becoming a pandemic.
It is disappointing, but sadly not too surprising, to see how many Catholics are trying to get around that cancellation, intruding into hitherto small-group Masses at convents and religious houses and thereby forcing those communities to either close to outsiders or cancel their own in-house liturgies.
A nursing facility for sick aged sisters where I celebrate a weekly Mass has had to cancel its Sunday liturgies because of the number of outsiders who have tried to come, seeming to think that their being at Mass is more important than protecting the lives of the elderly sisters who are especially at risk if they are exposed to the virus.
I know of a community of male religious in Tokyo who are hosting all comers, reportedly filling their church with people whose own churches are obeying the diocesan cancellation order. This abets the disobedient, the thoughtless, the selfish and the stupid while endangering society at large. But it presumably fills the coffers of the religious through augmented collections that will probably not be earmarked for epidemic relief.
Those people show no concern for the rationale behind the cessation of large-group Masses nor obedience to leaders of the Church and civil society. They selfishly feel that their private piety is more important than the health and safety and even the lives of their sisters and brothers.
Some have even disputed the authority of their bishops to issue such cancellation orders. For the record, bishops have that authority, regardless of what people who seem to consider themselves super-Catholics might think. In fact, given the present state of the epidemic and the uncertainty about its likely course, to not cancel church gatherings would be irresponsible on the part of bishops in affected areas.
Apart from those who consider themselves exempt, we Catholics in virus-affected areas have in effect been forced to give up Mass for a major and not-yet-clear duration during Lent. The challenge and opportunity for us is to see how this deprivation might deepen our faith, hope and love in preparation for renewing our baptismal commitment at Easter whether we are able to gather then or not.
Of course, the cancellation of parish liturgies does not prevent our using the time we would usually spend taking part in the Mass to read and reflect on the prayers and readings of the day. We may find, in fact, that we are able to develop better personal “homilies” than those we may endure in normal circumstances.
We can even have a “collection,” putting aside money to be later contributed to our parishes because though Masses have been cancelled most major expenses have not been. Salaries must still be paid, and at least in Tokyo the electric company has shown no indication that it will cancel charges to churches that are not gathering each Sunday.
Our Lenten fasts and sacrifices are meant in part to increase our awareness of the situation of our brothers and sisters who must do without not by choice, nor for a limited time, but because of enduring poverty, famine, oppression or lack of opportunity.
Might not our “fasting” from Sunday Mass give us a closer communion with our sisters and brothers who must do without Eucharistic celebrations for months or even years at a time because there are no priests available to join their gatherings?
Such is the case, for instance, in the Amazon region of South America, and at their recent synod the bishops of Amazonia declared that ordaining married men should be considered as a means of alleviating that enforced “fast” from the Eucharist. Pope Francis is apparently waiting for one or more of those bishops to say he will take that step.
What is true of Amazonia is going to be true of the rest of the Church as well. The epidemic of priestlessness will spread. In much of the world, most of the leaders of Eucharistic celebrations are white-haired if they have hair. That is not a good augury for the future.
Perhaps the temporary Eucharistic fast imposed by the coronavirus will give us all a sense of urgency in preparing to head off Eucharistic poverty. Then, if we — all of us — search out creative answers to the problem, we may find that just as fasting can improve our physical as well as spiritual health, our giving up Mass for Lent will have improved our Church’s health.
Father Bill Grimm is the publisher of UCA News and is based in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.Read the Letter from Rome: Coronavirus dominates Church affairs