Drive-In Mass

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Following up on my suggestion of small church services through online signup to get around coronavirus restrictions, a reader suggested outdoor Masses. That got me to thinking of what Irish Catholics did during penal times.

Mass was illegal and persecuted in Ireland from around the 1650s to the 1750s, as the English authorities tried to stamp out Catholicism. All Catholic churches became (Protestant) Church of Ireland churches, and celebrating Mass anywhere was forbidden.

Catholics took to having Mass in out-of-the-way places outdoors, using a rock as an altar. They were so common that some of them took on place names in the Irish language:  Carraig an Aifrinn, or Mass Rock.

(An academic researcher has published information about them at a web site called

Imagine cold, wet Ireland, with quite a walk outdoors to and from the gathering spot and then standing and perhaps kneeling during Mass.

Makes American Catholicism seem not only tame but ridiculous.

Perhaps in the time of coronavirus we can adapt the 17th century Irish playbook to our more genteel times.

Imagine Mass in a church parking lot.

The priest sets up a temporary altar under a tent far away from everybody else. (This is not reinventing a wheel. Priests do this sort of thing at cemeteries and even on beaches. I have been to both for Mass.)

Mass-goers drive into the parking lot, and don’t even get out of their car. Parking spots are designated so that nobody is too close to anybody else.

The priest has a microphone connected to a loudspeaker, so people can hear. He reads the prayers, reads the Scripture readings, gives a short sermon, and performs the consecration, turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.

Kneeling during the consecration becomes tricky under this scenario. Some people might be able to kneel on seats in their cars. Some people might get out and kneel on the pavement (assuming they are far enough away from everybody else). Some may just stay seated, as is the case now in churches for people who can’t kneel or stand.

But kneeling, though reverent and proper, is not essential.  Mass is.

Distributing communion may be too dangerous at a time like this. It can be dispensed with. Indeed, Catholics in former times would be astonished at how often Catholics receive communion nowadays, since before the time of St. Paul VI (1963-1978) it was less common for a layman to receive communion every week. (Among other things, the fasting time was significantly longer than the one-hour of today, so it was common for Catholics who had eaten food before Mass not to receive communion. During some centuries, Catholics were advised not to present themselves for communion unless they had been to confession very recently, even if they believed themselves to be in a state of grace.)

None of this is ideal, of course. But it’s preferable to cancelling all public Masses, as the vast majority of bishops in the United States have done.

Some have responded to this crisis by suggesting other forms of prayer, such as the rosary, reading the Bible, Stations of the Cross, making a spiritual communion, offering up the absence of Mass to God as its own form of suffering. All of these are useful and helpful. But they don’t replace Mass.

Some have suggested obeying the bishops’ suspension of public Masses. Well, who isn’t? The point is that the bishops can use ideas, especially in a time of uncertainty. If there’s some way to restore Mass that meets the current restrictions, why not do it?

Why is this so important?

Aside:  Some found my flighty description of the consecration yesterday confusing. I’ll use simpler terms here:  Catholics believe that during Mass the substance of bread and wine changes, while retaining their outward form. That is:  Through the actions of a priest, the wafer and the liquid still look like bread and wine, but they aren’t; they become the actual body and blood of Jesus, whom Catholics worship as God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the Mass “makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior” and that in the Eucharist the Church “finds its center and most intense expression.”

The Catechism also states:  “We carry out this command of the Lord by celebrating the memorial of his sacrifice. In so doing, we offer to the Father what he has himself given us:  the gifts of his creation, bread and wine which, by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the words of Christ, have become the body and blood of Christ. Christ is thus really and mysteriously made present.”

That’s why Mass is irreplaceable. And while it’s comforting to know that Catholic priests are continuing to celebrate Mass in private, it doesn’t replace being at Mass for the rest of us.

Nor is our presence inconsequential.

A layman cannot celebrate Mass. Only a priest can. But a layman is not a spectator at Mass, either. The Catechism uses a verb to describe what laymen do, and it isn’t “watch.” The verb is “participate.” (See here, for instance.)

Phil Lawler put it in personal terms last week at  “… I need to participate regularly in the holy Sacrifice; without it, life makes no sense.”

Nor is this activity merely personal. Every prayer matters for everyone else, particularly prayers made in the presence of God through sacrament.

Everyone who goes to Mass has a role, even if it’s just to stand in the back and silently pray.

Or maybe, at a drive-in Mass, our role could be to sit in the back seat and silently pray.

Then this, too, shall pass.