Eucharist during COVID-19: What have we learnt?


A pandemic being fought with a lockdown imposed on the whole population affects all areas of life.

Organised religion normally involves congregations gathering, the word ‘church’ is based on the word ‘assembly’.

The respiratory virus can spread with disastrous effects in a closely packed crowd and for very good reasons public gatherings were banned during the time of lockdown.

The ‘source and summit’ of Catholic life and worship is the Eucharist.

The third of the Ten Commandments is “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) and Catholics interpret this as an obligation to attend mass on Sundays. In modern Catholic practice most of those attending mass receive Holy Communion.

In a Pastoral Letter, circulated in the Diocese of Auckland on 20 March 2020, Catholics were told by Bishop Patrick Dunn:

Having carefully and calmly reviewed the advice from the Ministry of Health, the New Zealand Catholic Bishop Conference have agreed to suspend all Masses including Sunday Mass until further notice. I formally give you dispensation from the obligation to participate at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation (cc 87#1, 1247)

At 11.59 pm on Wednesday 25 March New Zealand went Alert Level 4 and the Bishops instructed all Catholic churches to close until further notice. Mass was not to be celebrated publicly. Priests were instructed:

You cannot dispense Holy Communion personally to individuals and, for those who have chapels in their presbyteries / religious houses, you cannot allow anyone in from outside but will have to act as a “closed community” until such time as the restrictions are lifted.

The Pastoral Letter sent to the Catholic people from the Bishops of Aotearoa New Zealand on Saturday 28 March declared that “the sacraments of the church are unavailable to parishioners. This an especially great suffering for both priests and people, unprecedented in our lifetime.”

That letter included the statement: “The sacraments, which are the primary communicators of the life of God within the Church, are not the origin of grace, nor do they have a monopoly on it. God is the origin of all grace and God freely chooses to reward virtue, good intentions and actions.”

Bishop Dunn’s letter of 20 March had a paragraph headed “Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy.”

Although Mass will not be available on Sunday in this time, people are encouraged to celebrate Sunday as domestic Church.

Gathering to pray in small groups, particularly whānau groups. This might include:

  • reading and pondering the Scriptures for Sunday,
  • giving thanks for all that we are blessed with,
  • praying for the needs of individuals, families, New Zealand and the world.
  • You will also be able to pray Sunday Mass individually or in small groups through the diocesan website where Sunday Mass will be available on the front page of the website from 6.00 pm each Saturday.

Two months later we have now moved, as a nation, to Alert Level 2, public gatherings of ten persons are permitted and educational institutions can resume face-to-face classes.

In planning how the organisation should resume theological education the CEO of Te Kupenga, Areti Metuamate, proposed that the Catholic Theological College should try and facilitate reflection on our recent experience.

  • What had happened?
  • What had dioceses, parishes and families done?
  • What was good, what was bad?
  • What have we learnt?

The You Tube clip giving four short accounts of experience is intended as a conversation starter.

  • Fr Merv Duffy SM – Dean of the Catholic Theological College. Te Kupenga the Catholic Leadership Institute in New Zealand has just been formed as the result of a merger between The Catholic Institute (TCI) and Good Shepherd College (GSC)
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