Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 11, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- After Virginia’s governor appeared to suggest that church attendance is immaterial to the act of worship, one theologian says that Catholics see worship differently.

On Thursday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) asked religious leaders to consider holding liturgies outdoors or virtually during the Christmas season, as he announced new restrictions on public gatherings to control the spread of the coronavirus.

“The holidays are typically times of joy and community. We gather together, we celebrate our faith, and we celebrate with family,” Northam said. “But this year, we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship, or the building?”

“To me, God is wherever you are. You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers,” said the governor.

Northam, who has no formal theological education or training, added that “worship online is still worship.”

“So I strongly call on our faith leaders to lead the way and set an example for their members. Worship with a mask on is still worship. Worship outside or worship online is still worship,” he said.

Dr. Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, told CNA on Friday that for Catholics to stay home out of caution during the pandemic might be laudable or necessary, but it is incorrect to say personal prayer, or even watching Mass online, can like-for-like replace attending a Mass in-person.

“You can’t just watch Mass and get the same thing out of attending the Mass,” he said. “The Eucharist alone makes that impossible, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ on Christmas is a gift. It requires presence.”

“In-person worship matters,” O’Malley said, and if Catholics are unable to attend Mass, they should consider the possibility to “worship together in smaller communities,” including as individual families in the home.

“For Catholics, matter matters,” he explained. “And that means the Church building is not just a container for human activity. It is a sacramental sign of the mystery being celebrated, the union of heaven and earth, the embodied memory of what Christ has accomplished on the cross.”

But, O’Malley said regarding Northam’s suggestions for outdoor liturgies, Catholic priests have historically offered Mass outdoors and, given the spread of the virus indoors, it might be a smart move for Christmas Mass.

“Much of the history of the liturgy has grown out of, at least initially, outdoor processions,” said O’Malley. “There is nothing intrinsically un-Catholic about outdoor Eucharistic liturgies. And in the time of a global pandemic, it may be wise to consider such opportunities.”

Churches were not subject to the Northam’s new gathering limits in Virginia, and the governor indicated that the exemption was due to the recent Supreme Court ruling in Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. In that ruling, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority halted the state’s restrictions that limited some indoor religious services to as few as 10 people.

“We are following suit with that,” Northam said on Thursday, noting that he would only encourage faith leaders and would not impose a legal mandate on them. He also imposed an indoor mask mandate on Virginians, but said the state would not be actively enforcing the order at churches.

In March, Northam’s public health restrictions made it a criminal offense to be at a non-essential gathering of more than 10 people—including inside a church. Local police stopped a Palm Sunday service at a Chincoteague Christian church that was attended by 16 people.

While both the Arlington and Richmond dioceses curbed Sunday Masses in the spring due to the spread of the virus, churches have been open again for Mass with the Sunday obligation still lifted during the pandemic.

O’Malley suggested that, for Catholics who are homebound during Christmas, they could perhaps pray the Liturgy of the Hours together.

“We can bend the knee before Christ in the creche. Worship in this sense, again, is not just thinking pious thoughts. It is using the material dimensions of Catholicism to enter into deeper communion with Christ,” he said.

In his letter Let us return to the Eucharist with joy released in September, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments said Catholics must return to Mass “as soon as circumstances permit.”

Cardinal Robert Sarah said in his letter of televised or live-streamed services that “no broadcast is comparable to personal communication or can replace it. On the contrary, these broadcasts alone risk distancing us from a personal and intimate encounter with the incarnate God who gave himself to us not in a virtual way.”

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