Liturgy and Social Distancing

by Brandon Sanders

These are unusual times as evidenced by the rare intersection of two of my interests, liturgy and medicine. Infection control is not just professionally relevant, but also personally important to me because I have several family members who are immunosuppressed (i.e., they have reduced effectiveness of their immune system).

I want to avoid the divisive and polemic debates that will invariably be incited by a discussion of the relative merits of suspending public masses or Sunday obligation. Instead, I want to focus on what meaningful interventions we can implement in our liturgical life now, and in the future, as we contend with the specter of the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic.

Because I am not an infectious disease specialist, I rely on the wisdom and advice of my colleagues who are more knowledgeable about this area of medicine.

Much discussion has focused on good personal hygiene – especially hand washing (see how here) and other common sense interventions such as covering ones mouth with ones elbow or a tissue when coughing or sneezing. But an important and sadly overlooked component to our response is socially distancing.

Social distancing is intentionally minimizing close contact between people by maintaining a 3-6 ft distance between individuals in an effort to reduce transmission of disease from respiratory droplets. This low-tech intervention is an important component to slow the spread of illness and prevent the medical system from becoming overwhelmed. By reducing transmission we “flatten the curve” to ensure that more people have access to appropriate medical care; this is certainly worth reading more about.

I’ve had numerous discussions with clergy, lay leaders, and musicians regarding what social distancing might look like in our liturgies. Here are some thoughts:

  • Most churches, sadly, do not suffer from high attendance. If your community has relatively low attendance, you might encourage the faithful to spread out and separate.
  • Choir members, servers, and lectors can model the behavior by maintaining the prescribed distance between themselves.
  • Perhaps efforts could be made to broadcast liturgies to those for whom attendance may be most dangerous (the elderly and medically compromised as well as their caregivers and housemates).
  • If there is suspension of public masses, how might the parish continue its liturgical observance? Physical isolation does not impede us from online praying together, sharing music, reflecting on scripture. We are fortunate to have access to the internet, email, Skype, and social media – let’s use them.
  • Staff may want to consider staggered schedules in their daily work, remote work, or spreading out into available space, and thereby “de-densifying.” Essential ministries and meetings may have to be prioritized and held in larger rooms to maintain distance between participants.

Our response to the pandemic can be constructive instead of panicked or complacent. I hope we proactively model interventions that can mitigate the impact of this virus, especially the impact on the most vulnerable in our communities.

We do not have to wait for diocesan directives to implement some of these changes. Here are some useful links.

While this Lent is certainly memorable, may it also be blessed!

Dr. Brandon Sanders, MD is Assistant Psychiatry Clerkship Director and Assistant Professor at Loyola Stritch School of Medicine.







  1. On your points:

    1. Communities with larger churches and smaller populations tend to self-separate outside of families and close friends. But a half-capacity gathering still means people separated by 2-3 feet.

    2. Some music ministries operate in space grudgingly given: choir lofts, corners of raised areas, a set number of pews. It’s not always possible, and certainly isn’t with my assigned 2 rows of seating.

    3. In our time of suspended Masses, we will do this. Many others already do it. One nearby parish has decided to livestream a mid-morning Sunday Mass, then make it available on the parish website. My question: if nobody but the priest is there, why Sunday? Why not the regular Saturday time, then have the broadcast recording available for whenever parishioners are accustomed to going to Mass–Saturday night, Sunday early, or whenever? I was told people could watch it any time they wanted to Sunday. And sure, that is true. But waiting until a later time for the Mass is yet another disruption that may be easily controlled.

  2. Singing chorally would possibly be an idea to suspend for the time being, given the nexus of transmission and proximity. I suspect many PIPs who do come to permitted public liturgies will stop singing, too.

  3. On a related note, Rod Dreher opines about life after the coronavirus for church attendance

    Focusing solely on Catholics, if mass is cancelled for months (a distinct possibility) some people who are nominal believers and tend out of habit may not return once the normalcy returns. They have developed a new habit. Obviously it is impossible to say if he is right, only time will tell, but I feel it is a reasonable prediction.

    1. It’s certainly not an unreasonable speculation, and it’s one pastors and ministers should consider more than they may prefer.

    2. On the other hand, if we are prevented from attending public Mass, as we are here in Ireland now, we might be inclined to reflect on the gift we have in the Eucharist, and on how easily we may take it for granted. That line of thought could lead to a greater appreciation of the gift and of the Giver.

  4. Similar suspensions are already in place in a number of other US dioceses, and in other countries (Italy, Ireland, Belgium, and probably others to follow very shortly). It is speculated that the US government may forcibly suspend all public acts of worship in the near future.

      1. Some bishops are taking leadership on this, and as they should. The transmission of disease and the possible overwhelming of profit-based health care in the US makes this a matter of grave sin for leadership. On the other hand, the federal government has limited power in policing local situations. There are ways to continue church without our Sunday “captive audience.” I suspect few of us have the imagination or creativity needed to bridge these weeks ahead.

  5. The Archdiocese of New York has cancelled all Masses this weekend. As of now, Saturday afternoon. Insane. Everyone will turn up anyway. They are streaming a “private” Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I object to that language.

  6. The Bishop of Dallas showed true pastoral leadership and concern when he said that he could simply have suspended the obligation but realized that a lot of people, particularly the elderly who are more at risk, would still want to to come; and so , in order to protect them, he canceled all Sunday and weekday Masses.

    We have no idea what is going to hit us. All the medics say this is the calm before the storm.

  7. Greetings from Seattle! Ground Zero of the Coronavirus in the US.

    Facebook Live is now how all of our Masses are taking place. Urban and suburban parishes have quickly transitioned. (No more than 10 people inside the churches. From the Presider to AV person!) We need to take our temperature before entering the building. Lots of handwashing before and after!) Rural parishes (churches without WiFi and the tech know-how) are probably left behind.

    I’ve emailed our auxiliary bishop (who’s spearheading this for our archdiocese) and suggested we should be like dioceses in Asia, and plan on moving our full initiation of adults to Pentecost or the (rarely used) Pentecost Vigil.

    Live-streaming Triduum, with 10 people or less, will be interesting, to say the least. We’re starting to plan it out. A vigil with 2 readings, no baptism, and just a tiny bowl of water…

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