At 80 I am, by definition, highly at risk from the coronavirus pandemic. Since the lockdown, I have quarantined myself and tried to observe all the precautionary measures prescribed by the authorities on everyone. Thanks be to God, I have not been infected. My wife had a freak accident and an emergency hip surgery a week before the lockdown, and because of the threat of the virus, I could not even go near her during or immediately after her procedure. She was discharged from hospital a day before the lockdown, and has been home with me since. We are both in good condition, and have tried to adjust to the new normal, but some demands on our lifestyle have not been easy to bear.

The most punishing is the forced separation of loved ones. Our family Sundays used to begin with Holy Mass at the parish and culminate in home-cooked lunch or dinner, with the youngest toddlers at the center of the celebration. Because of “physical distancing,” all that is gone now. For the same reason, we have not been able to properly mourn or pay our final respects to friends who have died, nor visit those who are seriously ill. Both are works of mercy commanded by Christian piety, friendship and love. Beyond this, we have missed the daily Mass and the Eucharist, without which every day has been, as the French say, “une journee sans soleil” —a day without sun. Indeed, a day without love.

Pandemic or no, the Mass is the center of a Christian’s daily life. Following it online is not the same as participating in the actual Mass. During the Middle Ages, according to Pope Clement VI’s reckoning in 1351, the Black Death or bubonic plague killed 23,840,000, or 31 percent of Catholic Europe, including one-third of the College of Cardinals, 207 bishops, 25 archbishops and so many clergymen. But there is no mention in Warren Carroll’s monumental History of Christendom of the Church cancelling the public celebration of the Mass and withholding the reception of the Eucharist.

As a Catholic I continue to hope that the Church would find a more creative way of responding to the pandemic without depriving the faithful of the sacraments. This hoping became even stronger on this third Sunday of Easter after rereading the gospel according to Luke (24:13-15) about the two disciples talking to Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They fail to recognize Jesus even as he speaks to them of what the Scriptures have foretold about his rising from the dead; they recognize him only later, at table, “when he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them.”

This, to me, is the clearest prefiguring of what happens at Holy Mass. In the Liturgy of the Word, we may, like the two disciples, fail to recognize Jesus through the Word of God alone, but in the Liturgy of the Eucharist when bread and wine are transformed by the words of transubstantiation into the body and blood of Christ, our eyes and our hearts are finally opened to Christ as the Son of God. So we eat of the bread not only to be nourished by spiritual food, but in the words of St. Augustine, “to be assimilated by it, taken into it, and fused into this bread and become bread, like Christ himself.”

Anyone who believes in this will naturally want to receive the Eucharist not only once during Easter, as the Church commands, but as often as the Church permits. For this reason, a Catholic cannot be at peace with the cancellation of the public Mass, and the withholding of the Eucharist for an indefinite period. And yet, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus) tells us that one of our greatest saints while preparing for death withheld the Eucharist from himself in a spirit of penance.

In his book, “Behold the Pierced One,” Ignatius, San Francisco, 1986, Ratzinger writes: “When Augustine sensed his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and undertook public penance. In his last days he manifested his solidarity with the public sinners who seek for pardon and grace through the renunciation of communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for him who is the Righteous and Merciful One. Against the background of his sermons and writings, which are a magnificent portrayal of the mystery of the Church as communion with the Body of Christ, and as the Body of Christ itself, built up by the Eucharist, this is a profoundly arresting gesture.”

Some Catholics have serious misgivings that even at the Vatican, Pope Francis celebrates the Mass without a congregation, and withholds communion from the faithful, in apparent compliance with the norms prescribed by secular authorities in the fight against Covid-19. This does not seem to add up. I believe it would put troubled Catholic minds at greater peace if the Church, guided by Augustine’s example, declared the prolonged non-reception of the sacraments as a period of universal penance and extended spiritual fasting to heighten the Christian world’s hunger and thirst for the sacraments. It could help truly deepen our otherwise narrow and superficial Christian lives.