Reflection: Social distancing holds Sacraments at bay


Rcia Class With Bishop Rhodes

The coronavirus and social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of the disease   interrupted life as we know it.

At the University of Notre Dame, Masses and classes are now online, and to the disappointment of the Class of 2020, even the University Commencement Ceremony on Sunday, May 17, will be virtual.

Another audience caught off guard by the closures of campus and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart are 39 Notre Dame students and one faculty member who, for months, have prepared to profess their faith and be received into the Catholic Church through the year-long Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and semester-long short course. The 40, which include candidates (previously baptized) and catechumens (unbaptized), were to be welcomed into the Church this month and receive Sacraments of Initiation, some of them at the Basilica’s Solemn Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday.

As is the case elsewhere in the U.S., the celebrations and sacraments are postponed indefinitely.

I serve as assistant director for sacramental preparation in Campus Ministry, accompanying individuals through their formation as they grow in a relationship with the Lord and the Church. Now I share in the sorrow that their wait will be longer and they may not finish their journey together.

In a normal year, the Easter Vigil at the Basilica would be celebrated with a standing-room-only congregation of roughly 1,400 worshippers, a 70-person choir, and dozens of concelebrating priests. It’s a beautiful and ancient tradition in the Church that as the congregation waits for the first light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the faithful welcome and initiate those who wish to become disciples of Jesus within His body, the Church.

But not this year.

Some may wonder why the profession of faith and celebration of the sacraments can’t be done virtually, since Mass can be celebrated online. While a Catholic’s prayer and spiritual worship of God can take place anywhere and at any time (as so many Catholics are rediscovering by necessity these days), one must be physically present in order to receive the sacraments.

Because the sacraments are sacred celebrations involving the use of matter (e.g., water in Baptism, oil in Confirmation, bread and wine in the Eucharist) and physical touch, they cannot be received in absentia or virtually. They are also necessarily communal: since one receives a sacrament, they always involve at least two people, typically the person (usually a priest) who confers and the recipient who receives. Thus, receiving the sacraments while simultaneously practicing social distancing is impossible.

For those returning to campus this fall, there will be a Mass of Sacramental Initiation early in the semester. For members of the Class of 2020 who are unable to return to campus for this Mass, we’ll provide a Letter of Good Standing to the Catholic parishes where they settle. For those studying abroad in the fall, we’ll celebrate a Mass of Sacramental Initiation that works with the study abroad timeline.

I pray, as I am sure you do, that we never again face a global pandemic. Whatever lies ahead, I will be forever moved by the faith and resilience of Notre Dame’s RCIA and short course class of 2020.

They already identify spiritually as Catholic Christians, and are especially united with the cross of Jesus during this season of social distancing, online Masses and postponed celebrations. And, they perceive that just as on the cross, God and His people will be victorious, present suffering will be transformed into future joy, and after this current darkness has passed, new and abundant life will come.