NEWARK, N.J. (CNS) -- Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin has invited the faithful of the Archdiocese of Newark to reflect on how the pandemic-induced "Great Eucharistic Fast" has affected their faith life and called on them to spiritually prepare for the eventual return of in-person worship when it can be done safely.
Writing in "Returning to Grace: A Pastoral Letter on the Eucharist," Cardinal Tobin said the inability to receive the body and blood of Christ in holy Communion has left a vacuum in people's lives.
He expressed hope that people would gratefully return to regular Mass attendance in due time.
"Is it possible that Catholics who have been denied access to this great sacrament -- including those who have 'walked away from it' over many years -- may realize what they are missing and return to experience the loving presence of Christ in this mystery of grace?" he wrote.
The title of the pastoral letter reflects the vital need for Catholics to invite others to "return to full, conscious and active participation in the eucharistic liturgy" and to do so by emphasizing "the graciousness of this great gift and its incomparable beauty," the letter said.
"I have given this pastoral letter the title 'Returning to Grace' because I firmly believe this is what all of us are called to do after and in response to the Great Eucharistic Fast imposed on us by COVID-19," Cardinal Tobin wrote.
By receiving the Eucharist, he explained, the faithful are "called to recognize ourselves as true members of the same body and blood of Christ who are intimately united with him and with each other through the miracle" of the mystery of the real presence of Jesus.
"Each time we receive the holy Eucharist, we accept the Lord's great commission to proclaim his Gospel and to minister to his people in every nation to the ends of the earth," Cardinal Tobin said.
Despite the livestreaming of Masses, the "forced separation" from normal church life since last March "remains a great tragedy," the cardinal said.
He compared the inability to receive holy Communion to being unable to visit his mother who now lives in southwestern Ontario, near his hometown of Detroit. When he finally was able to visit and share a cup of tea with her last summer, he said, "I experienced true joy."
"Millions of Catholics across the world have had a similar experience with their love for Jesus. ... What we receive when we receive holy Communion is the same 'body of Christ' that St. Paul tells us we are," the cardinal said.
"When we say 'Amen,' we are committing to truly reflect the presence of our Lord in our daily lives and to share him with everyone we encounter. In other words, when we receive the Eucharist, we receive Christ and agree to be Christ with and for others," the pastoral letter said.
Cardinal Tobin said people have asked him when he would restore the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. They have wondered, he explained, if "many Catholics have grown accustomed to staying at home and watching Mass online or not participating at all."
Acknowledging that Mass attendance has been declining for years, Cardinal Tobin questioned in his pastoral letter whether the pandemic has accelerated the trend or if people have grown in appreciation for the Eucharist because they have been denied access to it for so long.
"Has absence made our hearts grow fonder?" he asked.
Cardinal Tobin encouraged people that as the pandemic wanes to "invite our sisters and brothers to return to full, conscious and active participation in the eucharistic liturgy" by emphasizing "the graciousness of this great gift and its incomparable beauty."
The document also pointed to the words of Pope Francis, who has "spoken out urging us not to be afraid, to remain spiritually close to God and one another, to call on Mary, Mother of the Church, St. Joseph during this Holy Year of St. Joseph, and all the saints, and to remember those who are most in need, especially the poor, vulnerable and displaced members of the human family."
"Pope Francis has also warned us that the sin of indifference can be a far more deadly virus than COVID-19," the cardinal wrote.
He suggested that "returning to grace means handling ourselves over to the Spirit of God, who makes Christ present to us, and who transforms those of us who receive him in the holy Eucharist into the body of Christ."
Cardinal Tobin also encouraged the faithful to return to the practice of making Sundays the "Lord's Holy Day" by making time for family, rest and prayer.
"If we trust in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the continual reopening of our parishes, schools and archdiocesan ministries will truly be a return to grace" for the faithful, he said. "As Pope Francis reminds us, we are now in a crisis and no one will emerge from this pandemic unchanged. Things will be different.
"The challenge is: Will they be better or worse? We hope and pray that God's people will emerge from this crisis renewed in the Spirit with an even greater love for Jesus' astonishing gift of himself to us in the Eucharist."
Cardinal Tobin's full pastoral letter in English and Spanish can be found online at https://www.rcan.org/cardinal-joseph-tobin-pastoral-letter.