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April 6, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The well-known liberal Catholic theologian Massimo Faggioli declared his irritation with the Bishops of the Italian region of Umbria, who are encouraging their priests to continue to celebrate Mass even while the people are unable to attend. 

In a now-deleted tweet, Faggioli, who is a professor of theology at Villanova University and one of Pope Francis’ staunchest defenders, suggested that Mass without the people was a form of “liturgical onanism”.


When I wrote to the UK-based liberal Catholic weekly The Tablet mentioning, among other things, the practice of Spiritual Communion for times when the reception of Holy Communion is impossible for some reason, this idea (which has since been promoted by Pope Francis and bishops all over the world) was similarly subjected to ridicule. In the next edition (21st March) they published a short letter from a certain Fr David Sillence:

“Would Joseph Shaw explain what an Act of Spiritual Communion is meant to be? As a colleague of mine said: ‘You wouldn’t have a Spiritual Collection, would you?’”

What these two reactions have in common is a refusal to take seriously the supernatural realities of the Faith. 

Faggioli has neglected the fact that Masses celebrated without a congregation, even without live-streaming or anything like that, are acts of worship acceptable to God which draw down His blessings on the Church and the World, help to free souls in purgatory from their sins, and also support the spiritual lives of the priests who celebrate them. Mass is the ultimate prayer, and to pray is the opposite of looking inwards at oneself: it is a looking outwards to God.

Again, with Spiritual Communions we engage with the reality of the Blessed Sacrament in our hearts, spiritually, reminding ourselves, as we do so, of the enormous reality of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. For this reason, the practice of Spiritual Communion can never replace Sacramental reception, but serves as a preparation for it. It reminds us of what we are missing and feeds our longing for it, while humbly asking God for some portion of the graces which we are missing out on.

What is the alternative to looking at things in this orthodox and traditional way, the way we are being encouraged to look at them by the Holy Father and the bishops? I think remarks like those I have quoted from Faggioli and Fr Sillence are influenced by a view of the sacraments focused not on their supernatural reality, but on their social function. Their social function is, of course, real, and is ideally closely connected with their spiritual significance. A parish Mass which really feels like a community celebration, a baptism which really feels like the reception of the candidate into the community, an ordination which really feels like the commissioning of a minister for the community, are good. 

The Catholic Church is a community, locally, globally, and cosmically, and if it doesn’t always feel like one, that is a pity. It is a community, however, not because of the mere geographical proximity of its members, or their merely social bonds, but because of the spiritual bonds which connect us, summarized in the Creed as “the Communion of Saints”. The social bonds which we can and should cultivate should supervene on these spiritual bonds. The human community of a parish should reflect and give outward expression to the spiritual community.

A spiritual community is a great deal more robust, in a time of epidemic, than a community based on casual friendly relations among a group of people with no spiritual bonds or indeed important common values. When we can’t attend church together or gather in other ways the human social value of the sacraments is reduced to almost nothing. People who were only going to church because it was an opportunity to see their friends will no longer have any reason to pay any attention to it.

The Church is weakened during the time we cannot come together for the sacraments, because our spiritual community can no longer be manifested and reinforced by our social community. For those who never took the spiritual community very seriously, or for whom the “spiritual” is just a grand way of talking about the social, this is not just a weakening, it is an annihilation.

The lockdown is one of those occasions in which the tide goes out, and one can see who has been swimming naked. An understanding of the Church which belittles or forgets altogether her spiritual reality was always a terrible idea. It puts the Catholic Church on the level of bowling alleys and bingo halls as a way of meeting friends. The Church is not well suited to competing with other social attractions. In the current situation, this view makes the Church seem completely irrelevant. 

As a spiritual institution, on the other hand, the Church is needed more than ever.

For more on Spiritual Communions and how to get the most out of Mass when you can’t attend, see here.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.