When I was a child in New Mexico, summer was a time when the social life of the church flourished. Every village in that region of small farms in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains had a chapel named for a patron saint.
Although most families traveled by horse-drawn vehicles, people from miles around came to these festivals, which began with Mass and continued for the entire day with contests of horsemanship, music, dancing, games and foot races for the young. There were food stands providing one’s favorite foods.
We attended several of these fiestas every summer and the memories, now decades later, are still vivid. When I think of those days, I am struck by the realization that we had a stronger community life then in those sparsely populated rural areas than in the many urban parishes we worshipped in during our peripatetic life.
That is true even today when our old parish in Sapello, New Mexico, does not exist anymore. Now it is a chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, 13 miles away in Las Vegas. A permanent deacon comes one Sunday each month to celebrate the liturgy, preach a homily and distribute Communion.
But the social tradition survives. After the service, the people gather in the vestibule of the chapel and church yard for coffee or tea, a sweet roll and leisurely conversation. In no hurry to drive the five, 10 or more miles back home, people linger for half an hour or more. Our extended family still owns a ranch in the area and during pre-pandemic times we spent time there every summer.
Ironically, urban life leads to a net loss in social relationships for everyone. We live closely packed together but we really don’t know each other. We are in touch with our family but have few other friendships.
We feel fortunate that we know and frequently speak to our next-door neighbors but beyond that we can’t say we know the residents in our block. Yet, when we come out of Sunday Mass, everyone seems to be in a rush to get home.
But worship, more than anything else, is a communal event. We draw strength from all the social gestures in it — the handshake of peace, singing the hymns and the manifestations of faith and belief of our fellow parishioners. Just spending an hour or so together strengthens our own faith. It can also be a humbling experience.
I remember going to Mass in a Mayan rural community in Yucatan and learning that many of the worshippers had walked as many as 15 miles to join in the celebration. Without words, their sacrifice challenged us to be better.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things. It has taken the lives of over 600,000 Americans and millions worldwide. It has shown us that social life in many settings can be dangerous. We have thus learned to worship from home via the TV Mass.
Now, as the first feeble steps of the recovery begin, churches are open once more and the dispensation from communal Sunday church worship has been canceled. But just as economists wonder whether the workers will return to the office, church leaders wonder whether the worshippers will return to the churches.
When we see that the virus has forced us to exchange the handshake or hug for an elbow bump, it makes one wonder whether the social damage caused by the virus exceeds our most dire calculations. After all, pre-pandemic the elbow was used principally to move others out of our way! The old saying, “you can’t go home again,” may be true.