Don’t let’s start again too quickly!

There is currently a great surge of pressure to get us back into our churches as quickly as possible. Bishops and political leaders alike are talking and negotiating, and it is to be hoped that they are dialoguing with medical experts.

In addition to medical considerations, there are sociological and philosophical aspects to be taken into account. It is also the case that in different countries and even different states there have been different experiences of the pandemic.

How can we best prepare to re-engage as physical participants in the liturgy of the Church? When and how should such a re-engagement happen? The following reflections do not pretend to be exhaustive but rather aim to be thought-provokers and discussion-starters.

They assume that it will be some considerable time before a vaccine is available, and/or herd immunity is established, and/or universal testing and tracking systems are in place.

The need for community

Much has been said and written about the desire of people to return to their churches. For a good number, this has seemed to be more a concern with the building itself and the prayer environment, almost as if spirituality can only exist with difficulty elsewhere when familiar church surroundings are missing. There is also a sector of churchgoers (including some bishops) who appear to think that prayer is somehow less efficacious if it doesn’t take place before the Blessed Sacrament. The idea that God exists in the beauty of creation, and that prayer takes place in the heart, is largely lacking.

For others, it is not so much the building that is lacking but the community itself. Celebrating with people we know and love is a deep-seated human need. We do it in family life with relatives and friends. Since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, we have striven to inculcate a sense of the communal dimension of liturgy, compared with the individualistic approach common before the Council, and to a large extent we seem to have been successful. There is nevertheless a danger that this may be to an extent undone by our practices during the emergency.

The whole question of streamed services has not yet been properly discussed. Is ocular participation in Mass via a computer or television screen a genuine substitute for “the real thing”? Or is it now accustoming people to being spectators once again, instead of participants?

Some places have declined to stream Masses, but instead have streamed celebrations of the Office, or a Liturgy of the Word + homily. Their rationale is that the Eucharist needs the presence of people. If the people cannot be present, perhaps we should, all of us (including priests), be fasting from Eucharist in solidarity with the two-thirds of the world’s Christian population who only have occasional access to it. At another level, one commentator described watching a streamed Mass as looking at a picture of a picture of someone you love, and expecting a kiss. That also relates to the reception of Communion, which will be discussed below.

It has been more difficult to understand this notion of Eucharistic fasting in the USA, where many Masses have been streamed with the assistance of a small number of socially-distanced musicians and liturgical ministers. In the UK, all such ancillary people have been banned from churches. Masses are celebrated by the priest alone. If there is music, it is because the priest sings a cappella. Celebrations in the British Isles have generally been bare and austere. In the US, there have been different kinds of sheltering-in-place. A complete lockdown, such as existed in Spain and France, is unheard of. All of this conditions the way in which a release from restrictions might be perceived and handled.

It is clear that the real beneficiaries of streamed celebrations have been those who are sick and housebound (as opposed to those who are currently housebound by order of the civil authorities). They have been able to take part in celebrations in their local church on a wide scale. We should, of course, have been doing this for them all along, but it has taken a pandemic for us to open our eyes to this pastoral need. It is to be hoped that when the emergency is over the streaming will continue. Some have said that doing this will encourage people to worship from home instead of coming back to church; but others think the desire for community will override such laziness.

Outside the liturgy, the housebound have also been able to take part in parish meetings via Zoom and other platforms. I think it is fair to say that new forms of community have been created. Some of the Facebook spirituality groups will, I am sure, continue to flourish after things have returned to normal.

A considerable number of diocesan priests, celebrating alone in a room or an empty church, perhaps with their own video equipment and not even a camera operator in the room, have commented on how absolutely weird and unnatural it feels to celebrate without a community present. (In which case one would ask why they have felt the need to continue to do so, rather than nourishing themselves with the Word of God and the Divine Office, as lay people have had to do.) That is an encouraging sign, and shows a realization that it is the assembly that is the primary minister, led and served by the priest.

Other priests have said that they have “felt” the presence of those watching, even though they could not see them (leaving aside those clergy who placed photos of parishioners in the pews). They have mentioned the phone-calls, emails and texts sending thanks for what they are doing.

People have also said that they are comforted by knowing that Mass intentions are being included (and stipends to priests are obviously helpful to them in a time of reduced collections). Others have said that they find it difficult to watch the priest in an empty church.

Priests have often explicitly prayed for those who are sick, in hospital, or have died, naming them individually. The pastoral communication skills of priests on camera have mostly risen to the occasion, and the sense of community is enhanced. On the other hand, some priests have said that their sense of “performing to the camera” is taking away from the rite.

A number of priests have mentioned how celebrating alone has enabled them to “pray” the Mass, pacing it differently and giving plenty of time to silence, something that is often difficult in a normal parish situation. A good question is, once they have the people in front of them again, how will those priests retain these beneficial aspects of their new style of celebration and what formation for the people will be required so that they will understand what the priest is doing?

Another notable feature of weekday celebrations is that priests have focused on homily preparation, recognizing that this is a primary form of nourishment for those watching at home. Some who would not previously have made the texts of their homilies available online have now done so, which is much appreciated. Despite increased preparation, a proportion of priests are finding it not easy to cope with a lack of immediate feedback.

In other situations, such as monastic communities, the monks have formed their own celebrating community as usual, and so have not noticed so much of a difference. However, religious communities that have been mostly deprived of their chaplains, communities which are mostly female and sometimes enclosed, have largely had to fall back on the Office (which of course nourishes them daily in any case), supplementing that with some form of shared lectio divina on scripture.

Quite a lot of “celebration shopping” has been taking place, as people flit from one stream to another, searching for what will be most fulfilling for them. This is beneficial in one way, in that it enables people to make informed choices and comparisons about celebrating, presiding and homiletic styles. The only ones who do not reap this particular benefit are the clergy, who do not generally see the wide range that is now on offer, often because they are busy offering pastoral support in other ways. Some have even said that they cannot bear to watch others celebrating.

The downside of this is, of course, the fact that some lay people may be more critical and less tolerant of the perceived failings of their own pastors when things return to normal, whatever normal is. That also has implications for the formation of people as they get back to celebrating together.

Social distancing

Much has been said about maintaining a two-metre distance (about 6 feet 6 inches rather than 6 feet), but this is an arbitrary figure and appears to have no scientific basis. Indeed, studies show that the particles exhaled by humans can not only travel further but linger longer. A cough in a supermarket will permeate to the adjacent three aisles and may last in the air for up to 15 minutes. Joggers, runners and cyclists out exercising are all pumping out significantly larger quantities of pathogens with greater penetrating distance than normal breathing and speech would produce.

In a church context, this certainly applies to singing where, once again, many more particles are produced and projected much further. This will impact not only choirs but clergy and congregations. Some have said that in a lustily-singing choir or congregation everyone needs to be at least 6 metres (almost 20 feet) apart to be reasonably sure of safety.

I am reminded of that notorious Skagit Valley Chorale choir rehearsal in Washington state where, despite social distancing apparently being observed, 45 out of 60 were infected and a number subsequently hospitalized of whom some died. Research shows that droplets from the “aerosol” coming out of a singer’s mouth may in some instances actually last in the air for several hours, and that it’s the people in front of you, rather than alongside you, who are more at risk.

We need to take all of this seriously, and not be misled into thinking that using hand sanitizer, avoiding the Sign of Peace and receiving Communion, and staying two metres apart will be all that is necessary for salvation.

There also needs to be consideration for the elderly and those with (often unseen) underlying conditions, for many of whom contact with the virus might well be fatal. They form a large part of our regular congregations, as do people of non-white ethnic groupings who, it seems, can be more susceptible to serious infection. If people feel uncomfortable or even frightened if they are present, and yet feel guilty if they are not there, how will we handle this?

It has been estimated that only 20% of a normal attendance will be realistically possible at any one time (obviously, much depends on the size and layout of the church). Moreover, every place that has been occupied will need to be sterilized before anyone else can sit or kneel there, so Mass times will need to be much more widely spaced than at present. The implications of that for weekend Masses will be immense. It seems clear that to fulfil the obligation Sunday Masses in larger churches will need to be held throughout the week, and that in a number of places even a ticketing system will be required to control the numbers attending. How to deal with funerals will be part of this question: for example, whether to incorporate them into a weekday “Sunday Mass”.

The workload of pastors, as also musicians and other liturgical ministers, will be enormously affected. One might foresee a situation where the entire weekday calendar is abandoned, except for major feasts and solemnities, and that some or even many celebrations are done in a simpler form or even without music at all.

Distribution of Communion

Any normal form of distribution will not be possible for a long time. Communion on the tongue will surely not be permitted (even though some have continued to do it in defiance of recommendations and regulations), and it seems likely that the same will be true for Communion from the common cup for an extended period.

Various forms of distribution under the form of bread have been suggested. In one, an unconsecrated host is placed on every seat that will be occupied, placed there by someone wearing sterilized surgical gloves. That seems possible.

Another has posited a vessel on the altar in which the priest places a host, withdraws, whereupon the communicant approaches, takes the host, consumes it and withdraws before the priest approaches with the next host. Quite apart from the time taken by this method, the communicant would undoubtedly touch the vessel in retrieving the host (the priest himself could drop it in from a height and thus not touch the vessel), with a risk of leaving the virus on the vessel which could infect subsequent communicants.

Another suggestion is for there to be a large number of smaller vessels on the altar or adjacent table, each containing one consecrated host that only one communicant would touch. Once again, the unconsecrated host would have been placed in the vessel beforehand by someone wearing sterilized gloves. This seems to be getting close to the practice of some non-catholic denominations where individual drinking glasses are taken and the contents consumed by communicants. One wonders whether this might mean that Communion under the form of wine only would become the preferred option (except for those who cannot tolerate alcohol), since the doctrine of concomitance would be known about or, if not, would be explained.

More bizarre suggestions include the use of 6-inch long golden tongs to dispense consecrated hosts without touching the hand of the communicant.

A further suggestion is that whatever form of distribution is decided upon, it would only take place once or twice a year, say around Easter and Christmas. For the remainder of the time, we would fast from Communion, instead nourishing ourselves with the Word of God. This would not only be consonant with the history of the Church but with those around the world who are consistently deprived of the Eucharist, as already mentioned.

In addition to the drive-through Confessions that have occurred, in some places priests have been giving drive-through Communion through car windows. Apart from the obvious health risks, this tends to promote a mentality of “getting Communion”, rather than it being seen as a culmination of a communal liturgical celebration. Masses with participants in cars in the church parking lot similarly tend to make the service into a collection of individual celebrations that all happen to be taking place simultaneously.

“Catching up”

There will be much time to make up as we gradually return to “normal”.

Parishes are already talking about large festive Masses to celebrate the return to normality, without considering whether those will even be possible for quite some time to come, let alone what normality might look like. The question of how and when to initiate those waiting for baptism is high on the agenda, as are ordinations, confirmations, weddings, and memorial services for those who have died. There is much material already available in the area of RCIA, but clearly the implications of social distancing on baptizing with water, on chrismation and on the laying-on of hands will all need to be worked out. Funerals, already mentioned, may look very different if numbers have to be limited.

Other concerns relate to symbols. What will we do about distributing palms that were blessed at the beginning of Holy Week? How about blessing and distributing candles and lighting them from the Paschal Candle? When can we start to use holy water stoups again?

I also wonder how many have realized that we may not actually be ready to celebrate at the start. Perhaps before festive celebrations and memorial services, liturgies of healing and grieving will be required. Each community and diocese will need to work out what is appropriate.

The temptation will be to try to do to much too quickly, not only risking the health of overburdened pastors but the laity. In addition to trying to envisage what a liturgy of celebratory return might look like (one suggestion is that it could include special blessings, not just of people but perhaps even of important parts of the church that we have “missed” — altar, ambo, font, etc.), it will be necessary to devise a phased re-engagement until we are sure that the pandemic is passed and risks are only minor or have gone. In any case, it seems unlikely that our communities as we knew them will come together again all at once. Some people will be scared initiallly, the older and more vulnerable members will be cautious, and some will be used to praying by themselves in their houses and may take time to coax back.

However we do it, the most important thing is that adequate time for discernment should be built into every planned re-emergence in order to ensure that we don’t physically harm members of the community in our eager rush to get back to our former practices.

16 comments

  1. Would our Lord allow the Holy Eucharist to be the source of disease transmission? I have both faith and trust that this Sacrament is only for our good. Do not be afraid!

    1. Even so, administering and receiving the Sacrament requires human proximity, which is clearly not safe at the present time and may not be for some time.

    2. Matthew 4:7
      “You shall not tempt the LORD your God.”

      Do not forget the Rev. Gerald O. Glenn of Virginia, who defied social distancing in his church and died of the virus shortly afterwards.

      Faith in the sacrament is not any reason to abandon prudence.

  2. Ours is a fallen world. I would not presume that our Lord would contravene all natural laws at all times regarding the transmission of this disease among His people. Many priests have suffered and died in the service of diseased sectors of society.
    Always emphasised by Christ is the nature of our heart in all circumstances that we find ourselves. Is it of love? Is it of Him? I would not presume to restrict our Lord’s ability to be fully present in the “virtual” sacrament if He chooses to be.

      1. It’s actually quite difficult to sing while wearing a mask, we are told.

        Most masks help to prevent the spread of droplets from the person wearing them. They do not, however, prevent the wearer from other people’s droplets unless it’s a high-grade surgical mask with a proper filter. Most masks do not come into that category.

        Perhaps we may even see two types of liturgy emerging: live liturgies with spaced congregations and no singing, and streamed Masses for the housebound only with a few widely-spaced musicians present providing music, as has been happening in a considerable number of US churches but not so much elsewhere (not at all in my country, where all musicians are banned from church buildings).

  3. This is excellent. Thanks so much for sharing these many ideas as we proceed. I’m a pediatrician, not a liturgist, and I appreciate hearing liturgical ideas seem to listen to the scientists, epidemiologists and doctors.

    1. I understand that it takes 18 to 24 months for the virus to infect 60 to 70 percent of the population before it develop herd immunity. Also assuming that we’ll have a vaccine ready by then, we may only return to “normal “ as early as June 2021 or even as late as January 2022.
      I believe the Liturgy of the Hours will become ever more useful and valuable until then.

  4. You may think differently if a relative is a medic and has to fix you once the disease gets you or someone else. And becomes ill in the process. We can’t ask that of others. Are you prepared to go into a COVid Ward with no PPE ?

  5. It seems that everyone takes the advice of their experts to support their position. It seems a little foolish to assume everyone who wants to return to Mass doesn’t care about epidemiology or human life just as it is foolish to suggest that those who are hesitant to go back to public Mass lack a spiritual bone. The amount of opinions from epidemiologists and other medical professionals is dizzying. However, one of the effects of the new normal does seem to be a general malaise if not downright depression for most people in our current situation. Why does no one talk about that? Instead, conservatives shout “liberals don’t care about faith!” and liberals scream “conservatives don’t care about life or science!”
    I talked to someone who said that they got to see their grandchildren in person for the first time in 6 weeks this past weekend and it was the first time they felt real joy in weeks. It is a little disappointing to me that this whole spit over returning to Mass has become a theological battleground with Verdun like progress. We cannot throw caution to the wind and just go for a return to normal but we also cannot limit the importance of human contact for human joy. Asking someone to isolate themselves for weeks and even months can cause great mental and spiritual health to people. What can we do to make a return to public Mass or public prayer of any sort a more human experience to give people some joy without exposing them to undue risk?

    1. “Why does no one talk about that?”

      Because if you don’t talk about something, it doesn’t exist.

      Basic rule of Irish-X Catholicism since the Great Hunger(s), which was the opportunity for the new Irish hierarchy to fundamentally alter that species of Catholicism.

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