Babies need to be touched. They need human touch not just for their general emotional well-being, but in some very specific, measurable ways. There is good evidence that sufficient physical contact with another human being is necessary for proper brain development [see here and here, for instance].
Touching other human beings is essential for human flourishing.
Less publicity has been given to the fact that contact, including physical contact, with other human beings continues to be important as we grow older. One study shows that Professional basketball teams “whose players touch each other more often win more games.” Another demonstrates that “those who had more hugs had a better immune response to the cold virus”. I could go on, but you get the idea: touching other human beings is essential for human flourishing.
It’s often the way that modern science breathlessly discovers what people have known all along. The Church has always known that we’re both spiritual and physical, and need each other not just to “be there”, but literally to be there: that’s why the Church is an ecclesia, from the Greek ἐκκλησία, an assembly of the people. We need to believe and worship in the company of other people. We need physical means like the sacraments to fully experience God’s grace. We need the Second Person of the Holy Trinity to become man so that we can look on the Face of our Creator (St. Paul calls him “the image of the invisible God”, Colossians 1:15). We need the Eucharist.
We need the Eucharist. The Second Person of the Trinity did not simply become man: He suffered as man, died, and was resurrected as man, so that He could share his Divine Life with us. The primary, tangible means with which he does that in this world is through the Holy Eucharist. Every Mass is not just a recollection, but a re-presentation, as in a making present again, of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Fr. William Sanders puts it:
However, this memorial is not simply a recollection of past history in chronological time, but rather a liturgical proclamation of living history, of an event that continues to live and touch our lives now . . .
Likewise, in the Eucharistic Host we come into direct contact with the Verum Corpus, the true body and blood of the crucified and risen Lord. That’s why the early martyrs told their Roman persecutors, “The Christian cannot live without the Eucharist”, that’s why St. Tarcisius gave his life protecting the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ.
With that in mind, I’d like to turn to the delicate topic of the curious events of this past year. We learned a whole lot about the information media, the political establishment, and, yes, the Church hierarchy. I don’t have much to say about the first two except to point out, as I have previously, that they are not our friends; they are not concerned for the flourishing of any of us as individuals, and surely not for our corporate well-being as the Church.
The Church hierarchy, well . . . that’s a touchier topic. I hardly need to say how many of us were dismayed a year ago by the response of the institutional Church to the Covid situation. I recall that at that time someone posted a map on a social media platform (which I will not name because I reject it and all its works and empty promises) showing all the dioceses of the United States. As each diocese shut down public masses, it’s area on the map went black. In less than a week the entire United States went dark. There was not a single diocese offering believers within its boundaries access to the mass. “The Christian cannot live without the Eucharist”.
Now, I don’t intend to launch a rant against the bishops. I understand that their position was difficult. While the science showed fairly early on that Covid 19 is not really a serious threat for most of us (not that you’d know it from government policies then or now), that was not yet clear at the time of the shut-downs. Also, the Corona Virus really is a deadly threat for the oldest segment of the population, and a disproportionate number of priests fall into that category. The desire to protect priests and people was and remains the best argument for limiting access to gatherings in our churches; whether or not shutting down whole dioceses was the best or most appropriate way to offer that protection is another matter, which I’ll touch on below.
Much less defensible was the near total surrender of ecclesiastical autonomy to the dictates of secular governments. Please let me know if it happened anywhere, but I don’t know of a single instance of a bishop saying to his state governor: “We’ll be happy to cooperate with your Covid mitigation efforts, but we will determine for ourselves how to do that in our own institutions.” More to the point, I don’t know of a single bishop (and again, I’d love to hear about it if it happened) who said “You have no authority to determine whether or not the Church of Jesus Christ is an essential service.” The Government rarely gives something back once it has taken it.
What exactly compelled them to bow to the dictates of Caesar and deny millions of Christians access to the Body of Christ, the Verum Corpus for which St. Tarcisius died, on Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the year? Remember, “The Christian cannot live without the Eucharist”. Was it for the tax exemption? “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” But for a tax exemption? In any case, the signs of the times indicate that the tax exemption will soon be gone no matter what we do. Are they afraid the government will lock us out of our churches? We’ve been in the catacombs before.
But honestly, I don’t think it needed, or needs, to come to that. I know of individual priests who quietly provided private masses, or offered parking lot masses, or other outdoor masses. I have to say that the cathedral church in my diocese did find some imaginative ways to continue to offer in-person confession (remember the human touch?), with appropriate social distancing, throughout the shut-down. Sadly, there are some places where confession is still not being offered at all. I’m sure that most of us would have been very pleased to see that same determination and imagination applied throughout the Covid crisis to making the sacraments, and especially the True Body of Christ, available to all Catholics. After all, “The Christian cannot live without the Eucharist.”
I’m not going through this simply to air year-old complaints. I’m looking to the future. It’s going to happen again. Whether because of Covid-19 or some other reasonably plausible threat, they’ll try to shut us down again. How can they not? It was just too easy for them to do it the first time. What can we do to protect our access to the Eucharist the next time the Powers and Principalities of this world try to take it away from us?
This is where we circle back to where we started, with babies and the need for the human touch. There’s one more study I wanted to mention. An article in Scientific American reminds us that “Strong emotional bonds between mothers and infants increase children’s willingness to explore the world”. Well, it turns out that the power of the mother’s touch survives infancy:
The more secure we are in our attachment to Mom, the more likely we are to try new things and take risks. Now researchers are discovering that this effect continues into adulthood. A mere reminder of Mom’s touch or the sound of her voice on the phone is enough to change people’s minds and moods, affecting their decision making in measurable ways.
Now, the Church is our spiritual mother, isn’t she? Recall that Pope John XXIII published an encyclical in 1961 referring to the Church as Mater et Magistra, Mother and Teacher. We Catholics know we have three mothers: our natural mother, Mother Mary, and Mother Church. We may not be babies anymore, but we still need our mother to nourish us. “The Christian cannot live without the Eucharist.”
Many of last year’s complaints and criticisms, however valid, put the bishops on the defensive. That’s never a good way to get what you want. Maybe we should try, instead, to appeal to the Church as a child appeals to her mother. “Or what man of you” Jesus says to his disciples, “if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” (Matthew 7:9-10) Think of a child, not throwing a tantrum, but instead lovingly asking “please, please I love you mommy!” A smiling but insistent child. What mother won’t give in eventually, if the child is asking for something good?
Will it work? Who knows? We do know that can’t allow a repeat of the great shut-down of 2020. Scientific American tells us that simply talking to our mother can help us try new things and take risks. Well, mom likes to feel the love sometimes, too. We need to help her be ready for the next time push comes to shove. As often and as widely as possible we ought to (respectfully and helpfully) suggest achievable ways in which the Church can render unto Caesar what is really his (and no more), but at the same time preserve and provide for her spiritual children what is theirs. We need to keep reminding her, lovingly but insistently, that the Christian cannot live without the Eucharist. Finally, let’s to ask Mother Mary to pray along with us that Mater Ecclesia finds the courage to be a Mother Bear. Her children are depending on her.