Easter 2020 will be the first Easter in the history of the Church when Catholics in most parts of the world will not be able to attend Mass. The situation is unprecedented. It is not, however, entirely unprecedented in England. Even during the dark days of Elizabethan persecution, there was always somewhere the faithful could gather to hear Mass; to find a precedent for the current situation, where the Church itself has suspended the public celebration of Mass, we need to go back over 800 years to the reign of King John.

On 23 March 1208 (coincidentally, the same day in 2020 that the government imposed a “lockdown” on the UK), under instructions from Pope Innocent III, the English bishops suspended the celebration of Mass throughout the kingdom, as well as the other sacraments. That year there would be no Easter liturgy, and the suspension went on for six long years. The suspension of 1208-1214 had nothing to do with a pandemic or with public health; it was, instead, the product of ecclesiastical politics, and was imposed on England by the Pope to punish King John.

Following the death of Archbishop Hubert Walter in 1205, King John tried to force the chapter of Canterbury Cathedral to elect a successor favorable to the King, but Pope Innocent III summoned the chapter to Rome where they elected Stephen Langton in 1207. The King refused to accept Archbishop Langton, prompting the Pope to instruct the English bishops to impose an interdict. The Mass was suspended (although a handful of indulgenced altars were exempted), along with the other sacraments. Funerals could not take place, nor could anyone be buried in consecrated ground. Churchyards were closed, and even bishops who died during this period were buried by the roadside. Churches were forbidden to ring their bells – and given that church bells at this time served to mark the time as well as sounding warnings to the community, the loss of bells was a major disruption to medieval life.

Praise the Lord

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