Most American Catholics no longer have access to public Masses, and may not have access for some time. The bishops’ suspension of public Masses reflects their concern about the spread of contagion. This is a legitimate concern. And yet the faithful need not remain separated from the Mass.
Many pastors have chosen to live-stream their Masses. This is a good intermediate step, but we need something more. Online Mass helps cultivate the disposition for efficacious reception of spiritual communion and maintains parishioners’ connections with their ordinary place of worship. But if online Mass becomes a regular practice over the course of months, it could subtly undermine the local, communal, and cultic dimensions of Catholic worship. We need to cultivate fuller Eucharistic communion. We have already seen that outdoor adoration can be conducted with devotion and decorum in accordance with social distancing guidelines. A good next step is drive-in Masses.
It’s a simple concept: Celebrate Mass on the church property so that parishioners can attend in their cars. (To be clear, the question of whether those present should receive Holy Communion is a different one, which is not here addressed.) Practically speaking, this could be achieved in many church parking lots. Not all urban parishes have parking lots, but nearby lots could be rented for the task. Not all parishioners have cars, but provision could be made for some to attend in the open air with proper buffering. Others may have more principled objections to the practice (i.e. drive-in Masses are not sufficiently reverent and liturgically unconventional), but the urgency imposed by present circumstances lessens the applicability of these arguments.
To pull it off, all you need is a bandstand, a moveable altar, a pop-up tent, and amplification or radio transmission. Such a Mass in no wise risks contagion. Yet it permits the people of God to assist at the Mass, to unite with the priest in the sacrifice of the altar, and to be locally present to the Lord by rites that can be seen and heard.
It helps to think of a natural analogue. Americans have more time and more occasion now for media consumption, and streaming services make it easy, inexpensive, and safe to watch from home. But people still feel a need for communal experience. As most conventional movie theaters have closed, drive-in theaters have seen a surging business. We have a similar need for communal worship.
Drive-through confession has already cropped up here and there, with prudent measures taken for social distancing. It may appear indecorous, but the innovation reflects the urgency of our sacramental need. Other proposals for confession—through video chat or general absolution over the intercom in a hospital—are invalid. The priest must be physically present to the penitent, and must be able to hear the penitent without the aid of phone or intercom. In the case of drive-through confession, then, we have a proving ground for healthy and unhealthy accommodation based on contact, which logic can and should be extended to the Mass.
When it comes to confession, the necessity of contact is obvious: The sound of the priest’s voice needs to reach the penitent’s ear. But this criterion is also operative in the efficacy of the Mass. Unlike a live-streamed confession, a live-streamed Mass is of course valid. Still, the Mass also calls for contact beyond the virtual—a contact through both faith and sense. We frequent the church to receive the Eucharist, certainly, but also to assist at the Mass. Even if one cannot receive for some reason, he is still ordinarily obliged to attend Mass, because this is the manner in which the Lord has chosen to save human beings.
There is a real difference between seeing the Eucharist before your eyes and seeing it on a TV or computer screen. Grace is communicated through time and space (all of which God holds together in an eternal now), but this does not mean that sacraments are magic. The rites of the Church (and their theological explanation) demand that we touch them and that they touch us. They are visible to be seen. They are spoken to be heard. They are given to be received.
The setting in which this contact is established is a common space of worship, ideally one that is holy and consecrated. St. Thomas Aquinas describes the fittingness of communal and local worship in terms of place:
A definite place is chosen for adoration, not on account of God Who is adored, as though He were enclosed in a place, but on account of the adorers; and this for three reasons. First, because the place is consecrated, so that those who pray there conceive a greater devotion and are more likely to be heard. . . . Secondly, on account of the sacred mysteries and other signs of holiness contained therein. Thirdly, on account of the concourse of many adorers, by reason of which their prayer is more likely to be heard, according to Mt 18:20, “Where there are two or three gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.”
By contact in a particular space, God is made peculiarly present to his people. This is part of the deepest logic of Eucharistic worship. We believe that the ultimate effect of the Eucharist is the unity of the Body of Christ, which is made more perfectly one—Head and members—in sacramental communion. And this unity is forged at the altar.
Admittedly, it is better to worship in a church, as St. Thomas describes above, but that option is not available. Yet we can still do something about preserving the local, communal, and cultic dimensions of worship by congregating for Mass, even if outside of the church building. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s something. And right now, we could really use something.
Fr. Gregory Pine, O.P., serves as Assistant Director for Campus Outreach at the Thomistic Institute.