Have you started going back to Mass yet?
Recently I went to my first Mass in three months. I had been watching Masses livestreamed weekly, but of course it didn’t feel the same. I looked forward to being able to return to a Mass celebrated in three dimensions.
Before I returned, I thought absence might make the heart more mystical. The heavens would open, and a booming voice would announce, “This is my son, who has been extraordinarily patient.”
In truth, however, my first Mass was, well, extraordinarily ordinary. The celebrant didn’t even remark on our long time apart. Perhaps for all of us, what we had been doing for decades, our spiritual muscle memory, kicked in. The routine that is ritual swept me along. It didn’t feel like I had been away three months. In an abnormal year, it still felt normal.
There is a great deal of concern in church circles that I’m in the minority. Parish staff worry about how many people will return, or if they’ll return. Diocesan finance officials worry that people who stop going stop giving, which will cripple parish and diocesan services worse than they already are.
There is reason for concern. More than one person has told me about the ease of watching Mass on TV. No dressing up. No crowds. No shame in getting up for a glass of water.
Others have commented on the wide selection available to them on the internet. If they wanted high church with incense and chant, they found it. If they wanted a quick Mass with a meaty sermon, they found it. Suddenly the streaming church had become a supermarket of options. How can the local parish compete?
And if going to Mass might seem normal, there are still a lot of changes. Limits on attendance. No holy water. Masks required. Hand sanitizer encouraged. No kiss of peace with one’s neighbor. Special procedures for receiving the Eucharist on the tongue.
Since we continue to live in a plague year, it is even possible that our churches could close again this fall (as some already have). Should there be a second wave, we might be sent back to our domestic catacombs.
If you are trying to decide what to do, please keep these things in mind. First, if you are vulnerable and worried about contagion, it is OK to be cautious.
But Mass on a screen or a prayer in your heart is not the same as being present at the Eucharist. Mass is about community, not spectators. Flesh and blood come together to share the flesh and blood of Jesus.
As Pope Francis said, the pandemic created a difficult situation to which the church responded. “But the ideal of the church is always with the people and with the sacraments — always,” he stressed. It is communal not virtual.
Second, the church is struggling. Your parish, your diocese, your church, all are hurting right now. Some Catholic schools have closed and many more are in danger of closing. Some people have kept giving — electronically or with envelopes — to their parish, but many people have not. If you have a job or have a steady income, consider upping your gift. If you give infrequently or never, consider giving now.
And if you are reading this in a diocesan publication, support it. The church is losing its voice as it closes more of its local publications. A bishop said recently that “we must maintain our capacity to tell our story.”
The church has responded with patience, generosity and even heroism during this pandemic. That is the story we must be proud to tell today.
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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.