By a priest of San Jose
This happens to me all the time. . .or at least it did before the Great Lockdown! When out to Costco or the mall, I hear someone call my name as they walk over to greet me. There is a welcome familiarity there, but I just cannot place the person: How do I know him? Where have I seen her? Inevitably, these individuals are parishioners from a parish I once served, but when we meet outside the familiar context of the parish, I am at a loss as I struggle to identify them before I embarrass myself.
Perhaps it is the way we are “wired,” but as it is often said, what is most important is “location, location, location.” How true! We recognize “church people” at church; but here we are now, unable to go to church. Our liturgical “encounters” are reduced to virtual gatherings, connected not by proximity, but by the thin, ethereal strands of photons that we call livestreaming. It is a one-way experience. The priest who celebrates Mass looks at a camera and the “unassembled liturgical assembly” has no real sense of who else is part of the virtual celebration, save for comments that scroll along the right side of the screen, comments that seem to be a new form of whispering during Mass, a virtual greeting, wave or hug. The location of our Sunday liturgy has moved from our parish churches to the sofas and easy chairs in our living rooms. A new location, indeed.
French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac taught that “Eucharist makes the Church” and the Second Vatican Council set as a goal for liturgy the “full, active, conscious participation” of the faithful. But now, in the throes of a global pandemic, unable to gather in our churches, we have resorted, by necessity to “virtual” Sunday and daily Mass. What does it mean to be “virtual”? According to Webopedia.com, “The opposite of virtual is real, absolute, or physical.” By logical extension, that which is virtual may be characterized as unreal, short-term, or ethereal. So does virtual Eucharist make a virtual Church, a Church that is unreal, short-term or only ethereal? Is Eucharist now no more than a “spectator sport”? I do not think so.
The gospel this Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:1-10) offers us hope, even in – or particularly in – these times. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls His sheep by name. They know His voice and they follow. Jesus gathers them, guards them and protects them. Because the sheep know the Shepherd, they will follow him. Even in unexpected places, His voice is familiar.
From the moment of our Baptism, we are “wired” to hear and to recognize Him.
For in the Lord, there is nothing virtual, but only that which is truly real, absolute and substantive. His love is for all of us, but even more importantly, that love is for each and every one of us. And so we hear the Lord’s voice by new means and in different locations. We hear the word of God proclaimed through our televisions and computer displays. The spiritual bond of Baptism unites us, even though we are scattered. The bond of Spiritual Communion, what we used to call “Communion of Desire,” connects – brings us into communion – with the Lord and, through Him, with one another.
Our sheltering in place and physical distancing continues. It is painful for many of us, but it is for the good of all, for the health of our society and of our world. As Saint Paul asks in the Letter to the Romans, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” The Apostle answers these questions: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (cf. Romans 8:35, ff).
Sheltered and distanced, you and I can never be separated from the love of God. And the Good Shepherd who serves also as the gate, will protect our comings and our goings.
Listen for His voice, for He is the Word of God’s own love, living in our midst.