The Eucharist in a Post-COVID Church
Revealing Our Lord to a world in desperate need of his love
Even before the rise of COVID-19, belief in the doctrine of the Real Presence was declining among a majority of self-identified Catholics. A 2019 Pew Center survey found that most don’t believe that Jesus is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. Some 69% say that the bread and wine used are mere symbols. As a result, less than one-third of U.S. Catholics affirm the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence. These numbers, if they can be believed, identify a serious crisis in what the Church describes as the “source and summit” of our faith.
With the rise of COVID and the severe space restrictions that followed, Mass attendance was limited, people spaced, faces were covered, the singing stopped and nearly all communal gatherings ceased. This also negatively impacted pastoral ministry in hospitals, nursing homes and jails, along with catechetical ministries, care for the poor and sacramental prep. There’s almost no aspect of diocesan and parish life untouched by the pandemic. While history will judge whether all of this was necessary, for us, now, we’re left with a Church in spiritual recovery. One aspect of this recovery, perhaps even the most important, is that of the Eucharist.
During the worst of the pandemic, most parishes provided some form of online video accessibility. With an almost universal dispensation by the U.S. Catholic bishops, many parishioners, not wishing to expose themselves to COVID, could stay home in their pajamas, grab a hot cup of coffee and watch Mass on their computer monitor.
For many, this alternative provided a means to stay in contact with their community and participate in some form of worship. At the same time, given the results of the Pew Study, it had the unintended effect of downplaying the Eucharist. If the Eucharist is only a symbol, a sensible sign, then it could, in theory, be received just as easily through the computer monitor than at church. Based on this way of thinking, many might conclude that post-COVID, a video-based Mass, be it television or internet, is just as good as the real thing with all the conveniences of home.
The challenge here is not so much the impact of COVID, nor is it video Masses which, given the circumstances, are a good thing. It’s not the lack of adult catechesis or pastoral activities or even social ministry. Rather, it’s the ecclesial impact of the COVID restrictions on the erroneous attitudes about the Eucharist. This, of course, is not to suggest we should disregard health and safety standards. That would be foolhardy. It is, however, to suggest that, unless we become more proactive, the number of Mass attendees post-COVID will be significantly less than those pre-COVID.
When I say “we become proactive” I don’t mean just deacons. After all, most deacons are hardly in a position to accomplish much without the entire community at work. Still, because we are clerics who live a lay life, we straddle both worlds, which puts us in a unique position. We see things, by virtue of our vocation, that priests and bishops do not, and, because of this, we enjoy a unique perspective. In light of this, I suggest that we begin to prayerfully reflect on how we might, as an order, call those who’ve fallen away post-COVID to full participation in the life of the Church.
My brothers, as COVID recedes and parish life returns to some semblance of normal, let us be ready to offer our insights, our hands and, indeed, our very hearts in the exercise of our diaconate. Let us reveal, in more profound and practical ways, our Eucharistic Lord to a world in desperate need of his saving love.
DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of The Deacon and director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is the founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates. Follow him on Facebook to continue the conversation.