‘Vaccine passports’ to attend Mass?

The New Zealand Government has introduced a new COVID-19 Protection Framework called the Traffic Light System.

Dec 11, 2021

By Fr J.P. Grayland
The New Zealand Government has introduced a new COVID-19 Protection Framework called the Traffic Light System. While this system is not based on theological or liturgical principles, it nonetheless has significant implications on how liturgical communities gather on Sundays for Mass and at other times for sacramental and liturgical celebrations.

This system distinguishes between vaccine passport holders and non-holders. It is a regulatory system that determines the number of people who can attend a social gathering, including a religious one. The number of people attending a gathering is determined by their vaccination status. The system has three levels: Red, Orange, and Green. At level Red, a gathering using vaccine certificates can accommodate 100 people. At a gathering not using vaccine certificates, 25 people can gather. At level Orange, a gathering using vaccine certificates can accommodate unlimited numbers of people with vaccine certificates. At a gathering not using vaccine certificates, 50 people can gather. At level Green, a gathering using vaccine certificates can accommodate unlimited numbers of people with vaccine certificates. At a gathering not using vaccine certificates, 100 people can gather.

Liturgical language
The language used by the Traffic Light System should not define how we refer to the Sacred Liturgy or the Eucharist, so we should avoid speaking of a “vaccinated Mass” or an “unvaccinated Mass” because this type of language reduces the Mass, the Liturgy, and the Eucharist to an external scientific, political or medical event.

The celebration and meaning of the Eucharist is not defined by an individual’s vaccination status; however, an individual’s admittance to the Mass, sacramental gatherings and funerals is, because these are public gatherings.

It is better to speak of “vaccinated congregations” or congregants and “unvaccinated congregations” and congregants. This clearly shows that the responsibility for attendance, and the congregation’s composition, lies with each congregant. Each individual congregant must make an ethical choice for their vaccination status and accept their responsibilities towards others.

“Vaccinated congregation” and “unvaccinated congregation” also places the onus for the opening of churches on the congregation and the individual congregant’s choice for a vaccination, or not, and not on the presider.

Social and ecclesial contract
COVID is revealing the social contract we share with each other where the safety of the most vulnerable relies on the generosity of the majority. The social contract must respect personal ethical choices and act wisely for the majority’s good.

The classification of church services as public gatherings makes them — during COVID — health and safety risks for all who attend, including an aging clergy. It also makes church communities part of the social contract and participants in the pursuit of the public good.

The New Zealand Traffic Light System and similar systems around the globe that mandate the distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated people has created the social requirement for vaccinated and non-vaccinated congregations. It is an example of Covid's impact on the ecclesialsocial contract of the liturgy, because liturgy is a participative, social experience.

For everyone, COVID has reformed our presumptions of social and physical gathering. We all experienced the loss of our presumed access to the sacred physical space, whether that space is a park, a church, a home visit, or a café. We have all suffered the loss of access to our friends and families and many have suffered the loss of employment and income. Liturgically, we have experienced the loss of the Eucharist, the mediation of the sacraments and funerals. Now we are being challenged to consider the social contract's moral duty to care for the most vulnerable, especially children who are not vaccinated and those who cannot be vaccinated.

Just as the social contract places an emphasis on the care of others and the common good, so too there is an ecclesial contract implicit in the gathering of the baptismal community. The baptismal community, when gathered in its liturgical assembly, is not an “assembly out of context” in that it exists like a perfect, disembodied community immune from the good of the society in which it exists.

The ecclesial contract embodied by the liturgical assembly is to care for the vulnerable, promote the common good, and remain in the unity of baptism.

In an adult Church, adults take responsibility for their behaviour. The liturgical community cares for the children, the widows and the orphans by providing alternatives. Where there is a need, we respond to it with generosity, love and forbearance.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the Early Church instituted the Seven to care for the Hellenist Christians (6:1-7). The Church resolves this type of problem through respect for the leadership of the Apostles, concern for those in need, and by offering a solution that enables everyone to celebrate the Eucharist.

It is reasonable and good to provide a Sunday Mass for those who have chosen — in good conscience — not to be vaccinated, just as it is reasonable and good to provide Mass for a vaccinated congregation. Some might argue that those who have not been vaccinated have forgone their element of the ‘social contract’ and therefore of the ecclesial contract and so don’t quality to be cared for or admitted to the worshipping congregation.

But we need to remember, there are many believers who are in good conscience but live in contradiction to Church teaching and so generally feel prevented from receiving the Eucharist. All this points to a need to understand the complex moral, social and ethical reality in the congregation itself.

The Sacred Liturgy is a locus
The Sacred Liturgy and the sacramental rites are the place or locus of salvation and thus they possess meaning in and of themselves that is not given by the State. When the celebration of the Mass and the sacraments are impeded, contradicted, prohibited, or made more difficult by the State, they do not lose their meaning and the State has not won a victory over God.

Because the sanctification of the world lies at the heart of the necessity of the Sacred Liturgy, the Church cannot just give up on its celebration of the Mass, but it must consider more in extraordinary circumstances, like the wider social contract. The Church too must act for the common good. We must also remember that sacramental-liturgical rites do not work by magic and their celebration is not immune from the actual circumstances in which they are celebrated. In the realities of a pandemic world, celebrating the liturgical and sacramental rites at any cost — irrespective of the circumstances — tend towards a magical approach to worship. Laity and clergy who ignore the reality of the circumstances forget that liturgy and sacraments are not products to be used like comfort food in winter. Instead, they are encounters with the living God in the communion of believers. The risk here is to approach the Sacred Liturgy, sacramental rites, and the liturgical rites as personal, pious, or cultural possessions that can be used without reference to their true locus.

A separated community and liturgical warfare
In New Zealand the vaccination mandate has separated the liturgical assembly into separate congregations, but only the baptismal community can choose to destroy its own communion. Sadly, there is no getting away from the fact that the distinction between vaccine passport holders and non-vaccine passport holders is painful for the Church. Nonetheless, we must remember that this is an exceptional time and that the reasons for this distinction are epidemiological and political, not theological. We are called to approach this issue as adults and how we deal with this as adult citizens and as adult Catholics will define us.

Referring to some as “vaccinated believers” and others as “non-vaccinated believers” is wrong. Similarly, defining, describing, or defending the Sacred liturgy as a “vaccinated” or “non-vaccinated Mass”, a “closed Mass” or “open Mass” is also wrong.

Each person attending Mass or a sacramental rite has the individual, personal and ethical responsibility to attend according to the legal mandate and not bring harm or scandal to the liturgical assembly by defying this for their own personal reasons — this includes priests.

Covid has brought changes to Catholic liturgical practice and Church life beyond anything any ecumenical council, pope, bishop, parish priest or clericalist mindset could imagine, and there is more to come!

A vaccination mandate only separates the liturgical community to the extent we choose to politicise our liturgical assemblies. Even when mandate forces us to have two congregations (determined by individual preferences) the Church is still at prayer. --LCI (https:// international.la-croix.com/

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