I’ve often thought about the benefits of a seminary program where aspiring priests would be required to spend a semester helping a family get ready for Sunday Mass every week. If nothing else, the experience would hopefully help our clergy grow in charity, compassion, and understanding of the efforts taken by the laity to fulfill their weekly obligation. That way, when someone misses Mass, or if they live-stream it at home, it may be understood more as a less-than-ideal but sometimes necessary occurrence, rather than a wilful shirking of responsibility in favor of what is ‘easy.’
During this Covid-19 pandemic, fearful sentiments regarding the future of in-person Mass attendance have arisen among Catholics, some of whom have openly worried that Sunday Massgoers may not resume their former routine and that streaming Mass may become the new normal. Since the intended audience of these concerns appears to be those who actually went to Mass pre-pandemic (seriously, who else is actually looking up these guidelines?) these fears seem very misdirected.
As I mentioned above, maybe if these folks—particularly the clergy—experienced for themselves the sacrifice it takes to get a family ready for church, then maybe they wouldn’t be questioning the strength of our faith to bring us back to Mass once it is safe to return.
Of course it isn’t wrong to call Christians to return to Mass, but to berate your flock and try to make them feel guilty because they may have spent their Sundays during the pandemic either doing other activities or streaming the liturgy online is completely unnecessary and unwarranted. There is a right way and wrong way to call people back to the Eucharist, and leveling a critical eye at them while they’re doing the best they can to keep their families safe is not helpful, nor is it productive, nor is it fair.
The Wrong Approach
Unfortunately, in a recent letter to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit from Archbishop Allen Vigneron, this heavy handed, guilt-trip approach is undertaken in imploring them to “Come Home to Hope,” even ahead of national health guidelines advising the opposite. For example, this allegedly “hopeful” statement says:
In allowing the general dispensation to expire, we welcome back to Mass all Catholics who have already been engaged in other activities that would present a similar or greater risk of exposure, such as eating out at restaurants, traveling, partaking in non-essential shopping, and widening one’s circle of contacts. These individuals should also prepare to return to Mass in recognition of its preeminence in our lives as Catholics.
The letter is very explicit in mentioning those “similar or greater” risks we may have taken during the lockdown, and seems to insist that we therefore shouldn’t mind incurring the same chance of exposure at Mass. The letter then goes on to list—or even finger-point to make this case—activities such as eating out and “non-essential” shopping, leaving average pewsitters little doubt that the letter is addressing them.
To be fair, the letter does include an addendum about “special dispensations,” which gives this concession: “If you have significant fear or anxiety of becoming ill by being at Mass,” you may be excused. My critique of this is simply, why a “significant” fear? Why not just a rational, thoughtful concern about contracting the virus? The letter also fails to mention that many are not concerned for their own health or safety as much as they do not want to spread Covid to others who are at greater risk. As Dan Amiri wrote last year, “we have a grave responsibility to take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which disproportionately impacts elderly and vulnerable populations.”
Finally, the letter makes sure to remind the faithful that Mass and the Body of Christ have a preeminent place in our lives and Catholics should “prepare” ourselves to remember that truth. I wonder if the archbishop believes that Catholics who have been faithfully streaming Mass and making spiritual communion for the last year have been just wasting their time. The letter states, “God did not come to us virtually. He came to us — and continues to come to us — in the flesh.”
Is it really true that God never comes to us virtually? I’m pretty sure St. Clare of Assisi would object to this after having the Mass miraculously projected to her in her cell after she (wait for it) could not attend in person due to illness. Of what use, then are all the Masses and novenas broadcast by EWTN if the Holy Trinity is not present virtually for those who cannot worship in person? How much hope are the Catholics of Detroit coming home to when their archbishop seems to have just nullified their efforts to stay spiritually nourished during this pandemic?
While this letter expresses fear that the faithful have forgotten the importance of the Eucharist, the fact is that the only people who are going to read it or heed it are the same people who have eagerly looked forward to returning to Mass. And they did so (obviously) because they do believe Christ and Eucharist are preeminent, not because they enjoy wrestling children’s shoes on their feet every Sunday morning. Those who share anxiety about the commitment of Catholics must stop lashing out at the laity for how they spent their time during the pandemic. Perhaps if our shepherds were more charitable, patient, and non-judgmental, the preeminence of the Mass would better root itself in the hearts of Catholics.
The Human Need for God is not Diminished
Clearly the human need for God has not diminished during these difficult times. Confirming for the world that desire for God has not abated: Fr. Mike Schmitz’s ‘Bible in a Year’ podcast has reached number one in the country. I doubt that would have happened without the pandemic. This mentality also ignores that, in the months since the dispensation began, many people have continued attending Mass in person at drive-in or outdoor Masses. We should be encouraged, not embittered, that American Catholic parishes have creatively adapted the liturgy by offering both live and pre-recorded Masses, talks, and prayer services.
It’s true that due to our fallen nature, not everyone has made the effort to supplement their spiritual lives during the pandemic. Still, we’d do well to acknowledge this without suspicion. The Church herself has always taught this: though we sin, human nature is oriented towards the good (ST I-II, Q.85, Art. 1, co.) and God is the ultimate Good (CCC 1704). Even if a Catholic replaces Sunday Mass with say, mountain climbing, we shouldn’t lose hope, as there are many paths that lead back to the Church and to God who gave us his nature (2 Pet 1:4). May this console us where others might despair!
Let’s assume the worst, for a moment, and imagine that many (or even most) Catholics don’t return to Mass. Might this say more about us as a Church, than about the impact of government health mandates? This might be a good opportunity to examine how well parish life functioned before the pandemic. Were people being spiritually fed and anchored in their faith communities? Priests may wish to reflect on what they did to intentionally feed their flocks outside of the Mass. Did they get to know their parishioners? Did they accompany them? Did they build and facilitate healthy and supportive communities?
The time to self-audit is now. After the pandemic, I suspect meeting people “where they are” after the upheaval of this past year will be the key to transitioning back to normal. People still battling the lingering effects of the disease may need to distance for a while longer. My personal hope is that local parishes continue to make use of streaming technology even after things return to normal. It has been a great consolation for many homebound people, and, speaking personally, my Covid susceptible parent, greatly enjoys seeing the priests she knows on YouTube offering Mass.
The faithful have not forgotten the importance of weekly liturgy and the Eucharist., and bishops and clergy might be comforted to know that many of us actually miss our spiritual homes. Many of us indeed yearn for the opportunity to consume the Body of Christ. Perhaps, trusting this, his Excellency would have chosen different wording in his letter.
The effects of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s untenable decision to lift the dispensation prematurely remain to be seen, but gambling with the wellbeing of the faithful seems awfully imprudent and counter-productive. Please, stop berating the laity over in-person Sunday Mass attendance, especially when the risks to our health persist and just as distribution of the vaccine begins! Clerical callousness surely drives away more people than a disease ever could.
God will continue to be greater than our fears, failings, and fragility—whether we’re worshipping in person or virtually. How can we ask those away from the Church to put their faith in the power of God if practicing Catholics don’t believe he can overcome the difficulties of the pandemic for just a little longer?
Image: Adobe Stock.