The first time I heard at Mass the “oratio imperata” (the Church-ordered prayer) on the novel corona virus, I thought it was time we enlisted God’s help again in our fight against our most serious adversities.

Not knowing enough about pandemics, though, I wondered why the authors of the oratio had chosen to single out the Wuhan-originated Covid-19 when so many other viruses—and so much moral depravity on top of them—threaten the death of souls, not just of our  mortal bodies.

I also wondered why the oratio had to be so wordy, trying to tell God what to do to help us, instead of simply asking Him to rid us of the plague, despite all our wretchedness.  One of St. Francis’s most profound prayers was supposed to have been said in silence.

The news updates on deaths and new confirmed cases from around the world tend to suggest the crisis would last longer than we would like while our men of science are trying to develop a cure. This is not an easy time for anyone, including those who may not be infected by the virus, especially the children and seniors.

The day before President Duterte ordered a community quarantine on Metro Manila, my wife fractured her hip in a freak accident inside a supermarket and had to be rushed to hospital for immediate surgery. But I could not even accompany her because at 80, I was told I had become too vulnerable to any kind of infection. I am sure many others are similarly situated.

I have two six-year-old grandchildren, they are the world’s cutest twins, who say they’d like to see me live to be a hundred, while some of my Bible-reading friends try to remind me from time to time that Noah started building his Ark for the Great Floods when he was past 500. For this reason, I am confident that, with God’s grace and  all our prayers, we shall overcome the perils of Covid-19.

But only “with God’s grace and all our prayers.”  For despite my personal discomfort with the wording of the oratio, I don’t believe the situation can be improved by shutting down our churches and suspending the celebration of the Holy Mass for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis.  We need the Church to pray more, not less.

Let us remember, the Holy Mass is the source and summit of our Christian life. For Aquinas it is the most important thing that ever happens in the world, when by the words of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Without the Holy Eucharist, there is no Catholic Church.

A Catholic goes to Mass everyday to receive the sacrament. He is under no obligation to do so, but the Church cannot deny him his right to receive it, if and when he asks for it. Therefore the Church has a duty to provide the sacrament; she cannot not say Mass for a day or for an indefinite duration just because of a Covid-19 crisis.

In 1593, in order to control Catholic Paris and unite France, the Huguenot king, Henry IV, converted to Catholicism in a public ceremony at the cathedral of St. Denis, saying  “Paris (was) worth a Mass.” Winning the fight against Covid-19 is certainly worth more than one Mass. But the inspired move of our ecclesiastical authorities has been to cancel all Masses for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

With the churches closed, even short visits to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is usually lodged inside a particular section of the church,  are also expected to cease. This is not quite all. In the last Mass I attended, the Eucharistic minister was instructed no longer to say, “Body of Christ” and the recipient no longer to say, “Amen,” during the distribution of holy communion. I did not think this had anything to add to our fight against Covid-19, but somehow it seemed to knock something away from the sanctity of our celebration.

Photo: Sunday Mass at Borongan Cathedral, March 15, 2020 (Alren Beronio/ESTE News)