The past 15 months have been a time of crisis and deep challenge for our country, and they have been a particular trial for the Catholics. During this terrible COVID period, many of us have been compelled to fast from attendance at Mass and the reception of the Eucharist. To be sure, numerous Masses and Eucharistic para-liturgies have been made available online, and thank God for these. But Catholics know in their bones that such virtual presentations are absolutely no substitute for the real thing. Now that the doors of our churches are commencing to open wide, I would like to urge every Catholic reading these words: Come back to Mass!

Why is the Mass of such central importance? The Second Vatican Council eloquently teaches that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” — which is to say, that from which authentic Christianity comes and toward which it tends. It is the alpha and the omega of the spiritual life, both the path and the goal of Christian discipleship. The church fathers consistently taught the Eucharist is sustenance for eternal life. They meant that in the measure that we internalize the body and blood of Jesus, we are readied for life with him in the next world. Thomas Aquinas said all of the other sacraments contain the virtus Christi (the power of Christ), but the Eucharist contains ipse Christus (Christ himself) — and this would help to explain why St. Thomas could never make it through the Mass without shedding copious tears. It is precisely at the Mass that we are privileged to receive this incomparable gift. It is precisely at the Mass that we take in this indispensable sustenance. Without it, we starve to death spiritually.

If I might broaden the scope a bit, I would like to suggest the Mass is, in its totality, the privileged point of encounter with Jesus Christ. During the Liturgy of the Word, we hear not simply human words crafted by poetic geniuses, but rather the words of the Word. In the readings, and especially in the Gospel, it is Christ who speaks to us. In our responses, we speak back to him, entering into conversation with the second person of the trinity. Then, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the same Jesus who has spoken his heart to us offers his body and blood for us to consume. There is simply, this side of heaven, no more intimate communion possible with the risen Lord.

I realize that many Catholics during this COVID period have become accustomed to the ease of attending Mass virtually from the comfort of their own homes and without the inconvenience of busy parking lots, crying children, and crowded pews. But a key feature of the Mass is precisely our coming together as a community. As we speak, pray, sing, and respond together, we realize our identity as the mystical body of Jesus. During the liturgy, the priest functions in persona Christi (in the very person of Christ), and the baptized in attendance join themselves symbolically to Christ the head and together offer worship to the Father. There is an exchange between priest and people at Mass that is crucially important though often overlooked. Just before the prayer over the gifts, the priest says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father,” and the people respond, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy church.” At that moment, head and members consciously join together to make the perfect sacrifice to the Father. The point is that this cannot happen when we are scattered in our homes and sitting in front of computer screens.

If I might signal the importance of the Mass in a more negative manner, the church has consistently taught that baptized Catholics are morally obligated to attend Mass on Sunday and that the conscious missing of Mass, in the absence of a valid excuse, is mortally sinful. I understand this language makes many people today uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t, for it is perfectly congruent with everything we have said about the Mass to this point. If the Eucharistic liturgy is, in fact, the source and summit of the Christian life, the privileged encounter with Jesus Christ, the moment when the mystical body most fully expresses itself, the setting for the reception of the bread of heaven — then we are indeed putting ourselves, spiritually speaking, in mortal danger when we actively stay away from it. Just as a physician might observe that you are endangering your life by eating fatty foods, smoking, and refraining from exercise, so a doctor of the soul will tell you that abstaining from the Mass is compromising your spiritual health. Of course, as I suggested above, it has always been the law of the church that an individual may decide to miss Mass for legitimate prudential reasons — and this certainly obtains during these waning days of the pandemic.

But come back to Mass! And might I suggest that you bring someone with you, someone who has been away too long or has perhaps been lulled into complacency during COVID? Let your own Eucharistic hunger awaken an evangelical impulse in you. Bring in people from the highways and byways; invite your co-workers and family members; wake up the kids on Sunday morning; turn off your computers. Come back to Mass!

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.