In an official decree effective April 1, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight extended at least until April 30 the suspension of all public Masses and gatherings in the Jefferson City diocese.
This suspension affects all liturgies for Holy Week and the Easter Triduum.
All Catholic schools in the diocese will follow this decree and remain closed through April 30.
Bishop McKnight made this decision in consultation and cooperation with government and public health authorities in an effort to help slow the spread of the dangerous COVID-19 virus.
In the extensive decree (CLICK HERE TO READ THE ENTIRE DECREE) the bishop prohibited public celebrations of the liturgy and devotions.
While assisting ministers are allowed at Masses that are livestreamed, those assisting ministers are encouraged not to present themselves for Holy Communion.
“These directives are in alignment with the recommendations of our federal government,” Bishop McKnight said when releasing the decree. “It is essential we do everything we can to protect people from the virus, especially those who are most vulnerable, and to support all those who are working tirelessly to stop its rapid spread and to treat those who are infected.”
The decree includes instruction on how priests are to celebrate the Holy Week services and the Sundays of the Easter Season.
It also provides direction for the celebration of other sacraments and rites, such as the Anointing of the Sick and Penance.
It states: “The distribution of Holy Communion outside of Mass and the celebration of the Anointing of the Sick are not permitted except for the celebration of the Last Rites.”
Bishop McKnight urged laypeople to participate in Sunday celebrations of the Mass from home through the internet, television or radio.
As of the weekend of March 28-29, 51 parishes were livestreaming and archiving their Masses in English (five in Spanish) over Facebook, YouTube or other online media.
The bishop also urged all people who are prevented by these circumstances from receiving Holy Communion to receive a Communion of Desire (also known as Spiritual Communion) and to offer up their temporary loss of this sacrament for all who are sick and all who have died from this pandemic.
He directed parishes and Catholic schools, within the bounds of prudence, government directives and advice from public health officials, to continue serving communities.
He likewise summoned all people, while following the same directives, to minister in Christ’s name to one another, especially those who are elderly, sick or poor.
“At no other time in our lifetimes has it been more important for all of us to put the gifts we received at baptism to use in service to our fellow human beings,” the bishop stated. “All of us are summoned to be visible manifestations of God’s grace to the people He places before us during this time of crisis.”
Sacrifice of praise
Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. George parish in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein and chairman of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, emphasized that every Mass is offered for the benefit of the People of God.
In Eucharistic Prayer I, the priest beseeches God to “graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family.”
Fr. Merz noted that the entire Church — all who are in heaven, all who have died and await full admittance into heaven, and all who remain in this life — are present at every Mass.
“Even the angels, because when we sing the ‘Holy, Holy,’ we join with the angels!” he said.
What is a private Mass?
Every Mass is for the whole Church, but a private Mass is offered by the priest to which he admits only the minister or ministers needed.
“The priest is celebrating Mass with and for the whole people,” said Fr. Merz, “even if no one else is physically present or only those are present who are needed to celebrate Mass appropriately.”
Who is present at a private Mass?
At a minimum, only the priest is needed, but other ministers may be included to help him celebrate more worthily.
The diocese makes a distinction between a weekday Mass and a Sunday Mass, which has more solemnity.
“Therefore, more ministers may be expected at a Sunday Mass, where more music is encouraged and additional help may be needed,” said Fr. Merz.
Also, if the Mass will be live streamed, then even one more minister can be added.
Those are the factors determining the number of people who need to be physically present.
“For a Sunday Mass, you could have a deacon, a lector, an acolyte, a musician and a cantor, and then if it’s livestreamed, someone to do the livestream,” said Fr. Merz.
The federal and state governments are temporarily prohibiting intentional gatherings of more than 10 people, and those 10 should not exhibit any symptoms of sickness.
“So if it is deemed necessary, you could have additional music ministers or altar servers, so long as the number of people, including the priest, is not greater than 10,” he stated.
Bishop McKnight has instructed parishes not to allow any other members of the assembly to attend, but only those needed to fulfill the essential ministries.
What is a Communion of Desire?
Fr. Merz acknowledged that these arrangements will be all the more difficult for the faithful during Holy Week and the Easter Triduum.
“It is a very Catholic thing for us to unite our sufferings and sacrifices to the cross of Christ,” he said. “We call this ‘offering it up.’
“This particular privation and separation from the community, we offer that up as a prayerful gift to God,” he stated. “We’re adding our sacrifice to the sacrifice of the Mass.”
That is called “making a Communion of Desire.”
Although not preferable to receiving Holy Communion sacramentally in the flesh, Spiritual Communion is possible and desirable due to the fact that every Mass is offered by the whole Body of Christ, on behalf of the Body of Christ.
“And as members of the Body of Christ, we can and should unite ourselves to the offering of the Mass through prayer and through desire,” Fr. Merz stated.
He emphasized that a Communion of Desire — often referred to as a Spiritual Communion — is not intended to take the place of sacramental Communion, “but to increase our hunger for sacramental Communion and reinforce our prayer relationship and connection with Christ.”
“We look forward with great joy and anticipation to joining one another once again at the altar of sacrifice and the banquet table of the Lord, where He makes Himself truly present to us and within us,” he said.
Not without precedent
Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, vicar general for the diocese and pastor of St. Michael parish in Russellville, pointed to a solid historical precedent for Bishop McKnight’s actions.
He pointed to widespread cessation of public Masses and other Catholic gatherings throughout the United States and abroad during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people worldwide.
“Many people have the mistaken notion that this is the first time in the history of our country that there have not been public celebrations of the sacraments,” Msgr. Kurwicki stated.
“But in fact, in Missouri in 1918-19, when the parishes that are now part of the Jefferson City diocese were still part of the St. Louis archdiocese and the former Dioceses of Kansas City and St. Joseph, the bishops — unwillingly at first — issued the same prohibition against public gatherings and public sacraments until the pandemic passed by,” he said.
Among the people who died in that pandemic were four religious sisters who were teaching at what is now St. Peter School in Marshall. (See related article, Page 8)
Msgr. Kurwicki noted that even the Nov. 10, 1918, consecration and installation of Bishop Christopher E. Byrne, formerly pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Columbia and of St. Joseph parish in Edina, as bishop of Galveston, Texas, was off limits to the public.
“Owing to the influenza prevailing at the time, church gatherings were prohibited,” historian Father John Rothensteiner wrote in his 1928 A History of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Msgr. Kurwicki noted that bishops and pastors took similar steps during a series of deadly cholera epidemics that ravaged communities throughout Missouri in the 1840s through the 1860s.
He said these steps were not only prudent due to the contagious and dangerous nature of such infections, they were also holy and in keeping with God’s plan.
“We may never know how many people are with us today, helping us carry-out the mission of the Church right here in our midst, who would never have been born had those steps not been taken to help prevent even more deaths,” the priest stated.
For more information about the diocese’s response to COVID-19, visit diojeffcity.org/public-health.