Absence and Significance

“When you do not receive communion, and you do not attend mass, you can do a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice, by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.” –St. Teresa of Avila

Absence makes us realize the significance of that which is not present. In UP Diliman more than a decade ago, I sensed this yearning from my former students who were raised in a Catholic school. They would request for masses or blessings at any event they were organizing. Being in a public university, they knew that religious practices were not required or obliged. Nevertheless, they wanted some touch of the divine even though they were praying for success or as banal as sheer luck. They would share in private that in the past, they regarded blessings as an outdated practice or the mass as an obligation. When what was a given in their previous school ceased to be one, the more they sought it out. They missed what they had been doing repeatedly. 

When the Church suspends mass gatherings in this pandemic, we find ourselves disoriented. What we have been used to have all been taken away. What now? I have learned something from cleaning my room. Sometimes it is better to empty your room first to pave way to a new interior.

Ash Wednesday’s reading from the Prophet Joel (2,13) comes to mind, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” When Sunday obligations are dispensed by the bishops and community Lenten practices are discouraged, we are invited to do an interior pilgrimage instead. We are given a space to re-think about the reasons behind our external practices. Just like a SWOT analysis, a threat can also be an opportunity.

This can be a time for renewal and appreciation of the Church’s dynamism and adaptability. 

Two inseparable words from Vatican II come to mind: Ressourcement and aggiornamento. “Ressourcement” means a return to the authoritative sources of our faith, so that we may be able to rediscover the truth and meaning of what we do; while “aggiornamento” is about finding effective ways to evangelize in the present time. Think of a tree: ressourcement roots us, while aggiornamento helps us branch out.

We grow by digging deep and by reaching out.

The Church is flexible and reasonable, no matter how many would regard it as otherwise. The mass schedules in my mission in the Middle East illustrates this flexibility. Since the UAE is an Islamic nation, their holy day is not Sunday, but Friday. In the spirit of ressourcement and aggiornamento, the Church there has decided to hold the Sunday celebrations on Fridays, with the options open on Saturdays and of course, Sundays. The Church in the Middle East does not abandon the truth of the celebration in its adaptation. This has made me a happy visitor: I could deliver the same homily for three days!

Likewise, many pastoral letters suggest various ways to be in “spiritual communion” (St. Teresa of Avila) when dispersed, loosely a communitas ad dispersionem. When we have neglected family time because of the many distractions around us, we are now given the opportune time to pray together and literally, stay together.

In a similar vein, we can set up an altar and pray alone, and still be in solidarity with health workers and front-liners. We can pray with a “torn heart” (Joel 2, 13) for the poor who are struggling with the implications of social distancing and community quarantine. 

On the part of the Philippine Church, she too learns the value of reaching out to people using technology. In this crisis, many church personnel moved to harness live streaming and the use of digital media, which led to the discovery of a wider reach, this time beyond their borders, more than their parishioners who cannot congregate in church.

Having given talks to dioceses on social communication, I do hope that parish priests and their co-workers can take full advantage of digital evangelization, knowing that it is manageable and cheap, if not free!

Sometimes a disaster can be an eye-opener.  

We are therefore not abandoning Holy Week and our Lenten practices. We are in truth in a fast: the absence yields a deeper significance. We are now invited to rediscover the whys of them, eventually to touch base with the Root and Source of what we have regarded as Lenten habits. So that when we return to a world safe from the Covid-19 virus and renewed by rediscovering Jesus in all our sacraments and devotions, we may be able to celebrate Holy Week with greater meaning and awareness of its significance. And with the grace of the Resurrection, we may be able to rise stronger but better people.  


Follow the news from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines here.

Published by Jboy Gonzales SJ

TV host: ABSCBN's Kape't Pandasal. Environment. Culture. Music. Photography. Leadership. Edgy. Eccentric. Jesuit.

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