When all the restrictions concerning COVID-19 are lifted – and they will be – will I have to return to Mass? Will I have to go to Confession? Will I be able to receive the Eucharist?  Will I be able to have my wedding in church?  Will I be able to have my loved one’s funeral Mass in church? Will Confirmations and Baptisms and Ordinations be scheduled?  Will the sick be able to receive the Sacraments?  Will churches be opened for prayer as before?  The answer is YES ... once restrictions are lifted and things return to “normal,” which means once the danger of spreading COVID-19 is no more.

When the media and others refer to the “current” pandemic and all the consequences and restrictions imposed as the “new normal,” that phrase bothers me very much.  It is not “normal” nor does the pandemic introduce a “new normal.”  It is only the “new now,” the “new present moment.”  It will pass, restrictions will be lifted and life – including life in the Catholic Church – will return to “normal.”  No one has presented a convincing argument otherwise.

Sure, vaccines will be developed and precautions will be introduced, but those kinds of things have happened before; they have become part of “normal” life, and we have adapted to them.  Take the polio or flu vaccines for example.  The history of the world provides many similar examples responding to very specific situations.  That is also true in the Church.

I am not saying things and circumstances don’t change, of course they do.  But life will go on and it will in the Church.

Consider the Sacraments.  They have been defined as “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.”  That definition was true and valid when they were instituted – even when the liturgical format of their administration was modified and adapted over the centuries – and it is true and valid today and will be tomorrow.

In theology, the Church speaks of “matter and form” as the essential elements of the Sacraments. Baptism has always been “water (matter)” and “Trinitarian formula (form)”; Confirmation has always been “consecrated Chrism and prayer accompanying the imposition of hands by the minister (matter)” and “anointing of forehead and formula (form)”; Holy Eucharist has always been “unleavened bread and grape wine (matter) and consecration by the ordained priest (form),” and so forth, for each of the seven Sacraments.

Sacraments presume the physical presence of the recipient and the minister.  They are physical and spiritual realities, “outward signs, instituted by Christ to give grace.”  And the Church has developed sacramental laws and disciplines to ensure their validity.

In the history of the Church, there have been occasions and events that have made the administration and reception of the Sacraments impossible.  Those historical occasions and events, however, have not altered the “fact and reality” of the Sacraments nor their “matter and form.” 

In a March 31, 2020, article appearing in Our Sunday Visitor, Monsignor Charles Pope explains this well: 

     Many questions have arisen about receiving Sacraments in a time of concern about the coronavirus. In ordinary circumstances, Catholics are expected to actively seek the Sacraments in the usual way the Church offers them. However, there are times when the Sacraments cannot be given due to extraordinary circumstances such as extreme weather, natural disasters or plague. In some parts of the world, too, priests are not routinely available. In such cases Catholics should be reassured that the desire to receive the Sacraments is itself a way to receive their graces.

     God does not ask of us the impossible or the unreasonable. There is a long tradition stretching back to the good thief on the cross of the “baptism of desire.” Jesus assured him of paradise even though he could not, at that moment, receive Baptism in the usual way. In these times of pandemic, we have also had to rediscover the tradition of Spiritual Communion. When the faithful cannot reasonably receive holy Communion, they are encouraged to express their desire for it to the Lord and be assured that, in their desire for holy Communion sincerely expressed, they receive the graces of it.

     The faithful should also be assured that, in their desire for the Sacraments of the Anointing of the Sick and Confession, if they cannot reasonably receive them in the ordinary manner, God knows their desire and will surely supply the graces they seek. God knows our hearts and will grant the graces we seek even if the usual ways he has set forth are not possible. May God’s people be at peace in this time of pandemic knowing that their priests continue to offer the Mass on their behalf and that, through their desires, they are united to the Lord who seeks to bless them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created circumstances, restrictions and a resulting spiritual situation that has been very difficult for the Catholic faithful – clergy, religious and laity – to accept.  It is not the “new normal” but, rather, the “new now,” however long it may last.  

Hopefully the temporary restrictions imposed by government and by the Church to prevent the spread of this virus will yield their intended and hoped-for effects, sooner rather than later.  We need to cooperate with them and fervently pray for the end of this pandemic and for those who have died, for those who are infected, for their loved ones and for those who care for them.

The doors of our churches will reopen for us again, the Sacraments will be given to us again, and we will return to the full practice of our Catholic faith again as we have in “normal” times, not merely because we “have to” or “can” but because we want to with all our hearts.  

In the meantime, as we wait for the “new now” to become the “new normal,” we know what we must do.