'This is not a drill': The Washington Post pays attention after nuclear threat interrupts the Mass

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Please allow me to flash back, for a moment, to a major national and international story from a week or so ago. I am referring to that stunning false alarm in Hawaii about an incoming ballistic missile.

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War era (I spent part of my childhood across town from an Air Force base full of B-52 bombers and their nuclear payloads), it is hard to image any message more terrifying than, "This is not a drill."

Lots of journalists and commentators asked a logical question: If you saw this message flash across your smartphone screen, what would you do?

I wondered, at the time, if many journalists considered pursuing religion-angle stories linked to that question. This is, after all, kind of the secular flip side of that question the Rev. Billy Graham and other evangelists have been asking for ages: If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

However, The Washington Post picked up -- in a piece mixing aggregation with some new reporting -- a fascinating piece out of Hawaii that looked at this question from a Catholic point of view, focusing on some very interesting liturgical questions.

Journalists: Here is the crucial point to remember. While skeptics may scoff, for believers in liturgical churches, nothing that is happening in the world, at any given moment in time, is more important than the mysteries that are taking place on an altar during Mass (or in Eastern churches, the Divine Liturgy). Thus, here is the top of that Post piece, which opens with a priest distributing Holy Communion in a Mass at a Diocese of Honolulu chapel:

Suddenly, a deacon interrupted him and held up a cellphone showing the incoming missile alert that went out shortly after 8 a.m. It urged people to seek immediate shelter. ...
Despite the possibility of impending doom, the Rev. Mark Gantley, who was leading the Mass, didn’t mention the alert to worshipers or stop the service. But he did forgo the closing song.
“The first thought that came to me was that I am going to finish Mass,” he told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the diocese’s newspaper. “I am not going to interrupt it.”

Would low-church Protestant clergy -- for whom the Lord's Supper is a symbol, not a sacrament -- have made the same decision? After all, clergy in ancient churches believe they are, in these rites, dealing with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Turn and run away? That's not an option.

So I wasn't surprised that the priest completed the Mass. (I remember hearing, a few years ago, about a case in which an Eastern Orthodox priest was informed, during a Divine Liturgy, that his house was on fire. Members of the church joined others in rushing to deal with this issue, while the priest continued the rite. The mysteries on the altar were more urgent, from an eternal point of view.)

However, there was another "What would you do?" question to answer in this case, for members of ancient churches. Were there any believers present who, faced with an incoming missile, were hit with the realization that they needed to go to Confession, right then and there?

There was no way for the priest to hear that many Confessions, in that little time. However, the local bishop made a poignant decision, one linked to a rare, unique rite that clergy are allowed to use as large army units are suddenly plunged into battle. Thus, let's return to the Post report, which included some crucial URLs to detailed church documents:

Bishop Larry Silva, who has led the diocese since 2005, was in his nearby residence when the alert went out from the Hawaii Emergency Management Center. He opted to head over to the chapel, where he knew about 45 people were attending a gathering for deacon candidates and their wives.
The bishop, still wearing a T-shirt, waited for the Mass to end and then told the group about the alert. He offered the Sacrament of Reconciliation through general absolution -- a penitential rite given to a group of people, Downes said.
It was the first time he had ever led the rite, which the Code of Canon Law says can be used in cases of “grave necessity,” as determined by a “diocesan bishop.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “grave necessity” can occur “when there is imminent danger of death” and not enough time for a priest to hear individual confessions of sins.
“It would be impractical to hear individual confessions with an impending nuclear bomb threat or in cases of soldiers going to battle or an airplane crashing,” Downes explained.

Frankly, I think this is an amazing window into the spiritual and very human side of the Hawaii panic. I wonder if there were rites going on at any other churches in Hawaii at that moment?

I don't think anyone would question this rare use of "general absolution" with civilians. However, there are some other details to consider in what unfolded in those tense moments in Honolulu. One liturgical question often leads to another.

Read carefully, in this passage from a piece on this topic at the Catholic Education Resource Center:

An example when the granting of general absolution was appropriate occurred on March 29, 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was in danger of exploding. If the reactor had exploded, large quantities of radioactive material would have been released into the environment, jeopardizing the lives of countless citizens. Bishop Keeler of Harrisburg (now the Cardinal, Archbishop of Baltimore) granted general absolution to the faithful since every individual person would not have had the chance to go to private confession.
Nevertheless, strict guidelines govern the exercise of general absolution. The priest must provide an explanation to the faithful, make a selection of passages from Scripture, and give a brief homily. The penitent, who is impeded from making a private confession, must have prepared himself by examining his conscience, repenting of sin, having contrition for that sin, and having a firm amendment not to commit the sin again; this sincere, personal preparation is essential to the valid reception of the sacrament. Together, the penitents would recite a formula for general confession, like the Confiteor (I confess to Almighty Glod...). The priest would impose a penance, and then impart absolution. The service would conclude with an exhortation to give thanks to God for His mercy, and then a blessing. (Confer Decree, No. 35, and Code of Canon Law, No. 962).

How long would it take to say a prayer of Confession? The bomb could land at any second. Here is the text of The Confiteor."

I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
(All strike their breast three times during the following two lines)
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
The absolution by the Priest follows: May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.
All: Amen.

Was there time for the bishop to follow the canonical details? The bishop appears to have decided to proceed, post haste. As the Catholic Herald noted:

Bishop Silva ... decided to forgo the stole and skip the liturgy that accompanies the rite.
“I just thought, “‘Let’s get this thing done,’” Bishop Silva said.
After giving a brief introduction about what he was doing, he said the words of absolution over the group.
“Some people were visibly upset,” Father Gantley said. “I remember one woman crying.”
Deacon Coughlin said the absolution was followed by a feeling of peace. “It was incredible calming for everyone,” he said.

Can you imagine this scene?

What a story. As far as I can tell, this is the only mainstream news report to pick up on this angle.

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