Covid experience, ‘traffic lights’ and liturgy

Living with the chaos

Covid is bringing everything to the point of unstoppable change.

The pandemic experience is reforming and reconfiguring our presumptions of contemporary life and liturgical practice and community.

The constraints imposed through social lockdown have reframed our church life and will influence how we “do” church for years to come.

For Catholics, the experience of Covid is both a social and liturgical one.

We have experienced the loss of our presumed access to the sacred physical space, whether that space is a park, a church, a home visit, or a café and, we have suffered the loss of access to our friends and families, to funerals and overseas travel, employment and income.

The liturgical loss at the heart of the experience of Covid has been the loss of our mediated sacramental system, and the loss of the physical presence of the Church gathered in the sacred gathering we call Mass.

On 3 December, the Government’s new Covid Traffic Light system comes into effect.

This system distinguishes between vaccine passport holders and non-holders as a regulatory system for attending social gatherings.

Beginning on 3 December, every public gathering at any level will be distinguished by the vaccination status of the people attending. The number of attendants will be determined by the vaccination status of the people attending.

The system has three gathering levels: Red, Orange, and Green. As applied to churches these are

Face coverings encouraged
vaccine certificates – 100 people based on 1m distancing.
Not using vaccine certificates 25 people can gather based on 1m distancing.

Face coverings encouraged
vaccine certificates – unlimited numbers of people with vaccine certificates.
Not using vaccine certificates – 50 people can gather based on 1m distancing.

Using vaccine certificates – unlimited numbers of people with vaccine certificates.
Not using vaccine certificates 100 people can gather based on 1m distancing.

These are the parameters stated by the Government; they are not theological principles or liturgical directives.

Liturgical Language

The language used by the Traffic Light system is not appropriate for the Church.

Referring to the Sacred Liturgy as a “vaccinated mass” or “unvaccinated mass” reduces it to an external scientific, political or medical event.

The Mass is not defined by an individual’s vaccination status; however, an individual’s admittance to the Mass and other sacramental gatherings and funerals will be because these are public gatherings.

It is better to speak of “vaccinated congregations” or congregants and “unvaccinated congregations” and congregants.

This clearly shows that the responsibility for attendance, and the congregation’s composition, lies with each congregation member and is an adult approach to worship; each individual congregant must make an ethical choice for their vaccination status and accept their responsibilities towards others.

It is better to speak


of  “vaccinated congregations”


and “unvaccinated congregations”.


Using these terms shows


that the responsibility


for attendance,


and the congregation’s composition


lies with the congregation.


“Vaccinated congregation” and “unvaccinated congregation” places the onus for the opening of churches and for the worthy celebration of sacraments on the congregation and not on the presider nor diocese.

The vaccination status of the congregation or congregant is the central factor.

To speak of a “vaccinated” or “unvaccinated Mass” is unhelpful because it gives theological and liturgical credence to a term that does not deserve it, and it would wrongly introduce words into the sacramental and liturgical language that are divisive and potentially harmful to the Body of Christ.

Each person attending Mass or a sacramental rite has the personal and ethical responsibility to attend according to the State legal mandate and not bring harm or scandal to the congregation by defying the mandate for their own personal reasons—this includes priests.

We all have a moral duty to care for the most vulnerable, especially children who are not vaccinated and those who cannot be vaccinated.

In this, we see the social contract we share with each other in our liberal, representative democracy; the safety of the most vulnerable relies on the generosity of the majority.

The classification of church services as public gatherings makes them—during Covid—health and safety risks for all who attend, including an ageing clergy.

We must avoid approaching the Mass, the celebration of the sacraments, and the ministerial priesthood transactionally.

This means we should not approach the Mass, the sacraments or priestly ministry as personal possessions, or worse, as political tools to be weaponised; an utterly selfish point of view is not a Christian point of view.

Social Contract – Church Contract

Just as there is a Social Contract, there is also a Church Contract.

In an adult church, adults take responsibility for their behaviours.

In an adult Christian Church, we care for the children, the widows and the orphans by providing alternatives and where there is a need, we respond to it with generosity, love and forbearance.

So it is reasonable and good to provide a Sunday Mass for those who have chosen—in good conscience—not to be vaccinated.

At appropriate levels of safety is also reasonable and good to enable vaccinated congregants to attend Mass without limits.

The Church has always provided sacraments to its own who could not attend the general Sunday Eucharist, such as hospital patients.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the Early Church instituted the Seven to care for the Hellenist Christians (6:1-7).

It resolved the problem through respect for the leadership of the Apostles, concern for those in need and offered a solution of care.

The Sacred Liturgy

The Sacred Liturgy, or the Mass, is the central liturgical rite of the Catholic Church.

It is not a political tool or a sacred weapon to be used violently.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Liturgy, the Church describes the Sacred Liturgy as the “source and summit of the Christian life” and “an exercise of the priestly office of Christ that is preeminent in the all the actions of the Church” (SC7).

In the Sacred Liturgy of the Eucharist, “the sanctification of men and women is given expression in symbols perceptible by the senses and is carried out in ways appropriate to each of them (symbols).

“In it (the Mass), complete and definitive public worship is performed by the mystical body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.”

The Sacred Liturgy reveals the Church to herself; it makes the Church—us—who we are.

It is more than just a pious action, a personal devotion, or a thing to be done.

The law of prayer, lex orandi, is more than a regulator of rites, symbols or songs. The law of prayer guides how we pray together in public because the Sacred Liturgy does not belong to any individual believer—priest, bishop, or layperson.

It is not a personal, pious, or cultural possession.

Consequently, the regulation of the Sacred Liturgy and the other sacramental rites belongs to the conference of bishops, the local bishop, and the pope.

Liturgical-sacramental rites have significant meaning in and of themselves.

They do not rely on the State for their meaning.

When their celebration is impeded, contradicted, prohibited, or made more difficult by the State, they do not lose their meaning.

Sacramental-liturgical rites symbolise a greater reality than the current political or medical context.

At the same time, we must avoid approaching the Mass and the sacrament as magical experiences that are immune from the actual circumstances in which they are celebrated.

We must avoid turning the priest, particularly those over 70, into a sacred magician who does not need to take care not to be infected. Ignoring the reality of the circumstances in which the Mass and the sacraments are celebrated reduces them to magic.

It forgets there is no imperative that a sacramental-liturgical rite must be celebrated in every circumstance—except baptism in a case of emergency.

Sacramental-liturgical rites do not have to be celebrated at any cost and in any circumstance.

The sanctification of the world lies at the heart of the necessity of the Sacred Liturgy.

Thus, the Church cannot just give up on its celebration of the Mass in ordinary circumstances, but the Church must consider other factors in extraordinary circumstances.

Remaining unified

Sadly, there is no getting away from the fact that the distinction between vaccine passport holders and non-vaccine passport holders is painful for the People of God and separates the Body of Christ.

The reasons for this distinction are epidemiological and political, not theological nor do they originate from the bishops.

How we deal with this as adult citizens and Catholics will define us.

Referring to some as “vaccinated believers” and others as “non-vaccinated believers” is simply wrong.

Similarly, defining, describing or defending the Sacred liturgy as a “vaccinated or non-vaccinated Mass” is also wrong.

Vaccinated and non-vaccinated Catholics can receive the sacraments if they receive them according to the liturgical laws. The complexity is that they cannot receive them together in the same liturgical space once the Traffic Light system exists.

Where needed, the Mass and the sacraments should be offered to those who are unvaccinated separately from those who are vaccinated.

In larger communities, it is rare for the parish to gather physically as one; we already distinguish through liturgical styles such as choral, guitar and youth masses, we also make distinctions on the basis of time, such as 7am, 9am, 11am and 5pm.

Although the vaccinated / unvaccinated distinction is different because it is mandated by the external agency of the Government, if we all behave with honour, act with a social conscience, and be respectful of Sacred Liturgy, we can maintain the unity of the Body of Christ in a difficult time.

  • Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is titled: Catholics. Prayer, Belief and Diversity in a Secular Context (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).
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