Returning to Liturgy as the Pandemic Progresses

by Benjamin Durheim

This week, many churches are opening up for various kinds of in-person devotion and prayer. Here in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the churches will be able to open for up to eight hours a day, for “individual prayer and adoration.” Such opening, cautiously practiced, is perhaps a good idea for ministry and church life, but I worry that pious Christians may take this as a wholesale invitation back to the church buildings.

Even with the exhortation to continue social distancing, to practice person limits in the church, and to continue vigorous cleaning and sanitizing, the move to incrementally open church buildings moves the body of Christ toward its encounter with the next set of (liturgical) temptations as the pandemic progresses: (1) the temptation to insist on the urgency of one’s own access to in-person liturgical and/or devotional practice, (2) the temptation to slip too quickly away from social distancing in church buildings, and (3) the temptation to mischaracterize social distancing precautions as evidence of fear rather than protection of vulnerable persons.

To be sure, each of these temptations has been gnawing its way into churches differently in different places, but as bodies begin to slowly return to the church buildings, these temptations will take on flesh in ways that social media posts and Zoom interactions simply don’t. In this light, I’d like to offer the following brief considerations as Christians weigh whether and when to move their bodies into church buildings:

First, our fast from in-person liturgy is not over, nor should it be. Rather than a tentative step toward full re-opening of church buildings, it may be more helpful to think of this slow re-opening as emergency ministry to those who need it. Just as in other fasts that Christians practice, not everyone can (or should) fast in the same ways for the same lengths of time. Some persons need sustenance more quickly than others, and ministering to such persons should be born neither of pity nor resentment, but of genuine love. The fast does not end for everyone just because someone needs a day of exemption from it. For everyone else, the fast continues. Love is, among other things, patient and kind (1 Cor 13:4).

Second, as this fast from in-person liturgy continues, it is understandable to become frustrated because we do not know exactly when or in what manner the fast will come to an end. The Lenten fast transitions to the celebration of Easter, and the Advent fast (Nativity fast) transitions to Christmas, but this pandemic fast for Christians has no easily-calculable endpoint. This great unknown can hurt, but for Christians, such unknowing is the context where love can be most precious and most necessary. Even when others may ignore social distancing precautions, Christians need not (must not) be envious. Even when some Christians will take the opportunity to participate in prayer and adoration at their church buildings, this is not cause to gloat. Love is neither jealous nor boastful (1 Cor 13:4).

Finally, social distancing is not simply for one’s own protection; it is for the protection of others, and most especially those who are vulnerable. Christians must see this, and practice it even as their societies slowly reopen. As specifically called to care for vulnerable persons (Mt 25), Christians’ concern should not be for their own liturgical or devotional desires, but instead for liturgical and devotional practice that safeguards vulnerable persons. Practicing social distancing, or wearing masks, or limiting numbers of persons in a church building, or any number of other precautions, are not products of fear; the are embodied practices of care for vulnerable persons, and solidarity with those whose lives and work require in-person contact. If one finds these precautions arduous, it may be helpful to recall the practice of discipleship is not ultimately about oneself. Love does not insist on its own way (1 Cor 13:7).

I do pray that we are able to return to in-person liturgy soon, but this prayer of mine I find embedded in my prayers for the end of the pandemic. The two are intertwined, and while I am comforted by the fact that some Christians may have more of their spiritual needs met in private prayer and adoration in their churches, I pray also that Christians as a whole are granted the hope and endurance (1 Cor 13:7) necessary for the practice of love in this time. Love may require a (much?) longer fast from in-person liturgy and devotional practice, but unlike this pandemic, love never ends (1 Cor 13:8).

Benjamin Durheim, PhD is visiting assistant professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, and Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary. He earned his PhD in systematic theology from Boston College. Ben has published articles on sacramental theology, ethics, and ecumenism, and his book Christ’s Gift, Our Response,was published by Liturgical Press. He lives in Avon, MN, with his wife and daughter.

12 comments

  1. I have been wondering why the phrases “fasting from the Eucharist” or “fasting from (going to) church” are often being used to describe not being able to receive Holy Communion or the other Sacraments, or physically going to Mass in churches due to COVID19. Isn’t a fast refraining from, limiting, or denying yourself something(s) that is taken on yourself as a penance or preparation? The closure of places and gatherings where people come together closely in groups where contagion could easily spread has been mandated or imposed often times by government. That’s not a fast. Perhaps we could say exile, using the imagery of Psalm 136 Super flumina?

    1. John,

      I think the idea of fasting from the Eucharist is related to that of the Eucharistic Fast. When I was growing up, it was from midnight, and even water was frowned upon unless you felt faint.

      But that Fast, which still exists in reduced form today, is definitely mandated and imposed on us by ecclesiastical authority, so your point about a fast needing to be a voluntary self-denial doesn’t seem to stand up here.

      However, I do like your idea of us being in temporary exile, weeping alongside the waters of Babylon. That psalm can certainly speak to our hearts at this very strange and unwanted time.

  2. Now the churches of the world that have been sacramentally equipped, comparatively speaking, may sense the deprivation the Amazonian churches experience over long periods. These communities have a lot to tell us about the ways they sustain their faith, hope and love in the times of scarcity.

    1. Thank you – excellent point. It puts into stark relief some of the weaknesses around putting the charism of celibacy above the eucharist and shows the hypocrisy of much of the First World negative reactions to the Amazon Synod.

  3. The US, Canada and most of Europe will (I hope) regre )the draconian approach they adopted to this virus. Far more enlightened was Sweden’s response (which was praised by the WHO):

    “What it has done differently is it has very much relied on its relationship with its citizenry and the ability and willingness of its citizens to implement self-distancing and self-regulate,” Ryan said. “In that sense, they have implemented public policy through that partnership with the population.”

    Partnership is the key word. Sweden isn’t simply issuing sweeping orders and fining or arresting those who disobey. Instead, Swedish leaders are seeking to work in cooperation with its citizenry. They are giving them information and asking them to behave responsibly.

    https://fee.org/articles/who-official-sweden-s-policy-of-individual-responsibility-a-model-for-the-rest-of-world/

    Much more in keeping with mature, self-responsible citizenry and in accord with civil liberties.

    This is a good model for the Church. Provide parameters and trust in the good sensibility of the people. And certainly, with its generous social programs and social welfare system, Sweden and the rest of the Nordic countries can hardly be reproached for not caring for the most vulnerable.

    The article concludes, and I agree, and relevant for Church authorities as well:

    Whatever the future holds, the world owes Sweden thanks. The Swedes have shown us a better way. They’ve reminded us that the proper role of the state is to inform individuals and work with them, to seek voluntary action and cooperation instead of resorting to blunt force and edicts.

    Perhaps most importantly, Sweden showed that viruses are medical problems, not political ones. When we start to see them as the latter, everyone loses.

    1. Please – Sweden is a poor example of society confronting COVID-19. Facts – Sweden’s death rate per 1,000 citizens is 6-7 times more compared to its neighbors Finland, Norway, or Denmark. In what world does that comport to *good sensibility*. The role of good leadership (governance) is to act for the common good. Your interpretation is similar to libertarianism – each for himself.
      https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/apr/28/facebook-posts/sweden-mostly-open-has-higher-covid-19-death-rate-/
      If you meant this as a comparison to what the Church should do – again, Catholic social justice emphasizes human dignity (not each for himself); solidarity; and the common good. Sweden’s approach is far from a *good model* – rather, it is tantamount to avoiding responsibility and leadership.

      1. If we had “mature, self-responsible citizenry,” that might be possible, but unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. 🙁

  4. Thank you for these thoughts. I live in Canada and therefore recognize that our realities are different. That said, I have been pondering what all of this means as we slowly re-open some aspects to our lives, church attendance being one of them.
    As members of the Body of Christ, the Body that is missing ‘parts’ when we are not all together, I am more and more leaning to not returning to our weekend celebrations until each and every one of us are able to come together. If we are still needing to stand six feet apart this means that some will not be able to join us or that we will have to divide the community over numerous masses. Another thought I have concerns our vulnerable people, our elderly. Some of these special folk may decide that it is not safe to return until there is a vaccine.
    Our parish is live streaming weekly Mass. We are also live streaming moments of Taize prayer and other liturgies and offerings of communal prayer while apart. This does not replace but certainly helps to keep us connected.
    Of course we want to be together again. There is nothing like the gathered church family around Word and Sacrament. But in the meantime, I believe there is much more to be considered before we begin putting next steps in place.
    I am very open to folks helping me to reflect further on this…… What is God’s desire for God’s people at this time and going forward? ….

  5. I want to be careful about affirming the good that Professor Durheim has presented here. However, my only concern with this post is a big one. Namely, the insistence that liturgy by definition takes place in a larger community–parish, school, or monastery. What we lack at present is the reception of the sacraments. Vital, significant, but hardly the whole worship enchilada, so to speak.

    Christians have the resources, ability, and authorization (even if they lack the initiative or the self-confidence) to celebrate liturgy at home, or wherever they are. There is no such thing as an imposed fasting from liturgy. This fast, if it exists for any of us, is self-imposed.

    The Church’s liturgies for the home in times of crisis (and possible in ordinary times as well) are the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Hours. This opportunity is missed in the rush to livestream and to foment for a return to normal. I must object to the continued infantilizing of the laity. Home liturgy can be as simple as a daily sign of the cross, followed by the gospel reading, then a brief meditation or discussion on what struck the individual or family, and concluded with intercessory prayer, the Lord’s Prayer and an invocation of God’s blessing. Ten minutes. Every day. Daily readings are available in any number of online sources or books. Or even just pick up a Bible and start with a gospel.

    Instead of affirming we’ve set the calendar back seventy years, why not dial time forward to the 22nd century and make something of the opportunity given?

    1. I agree. My family and I watched one live-streamed Sunday Mass during the last several weeks of staying home. It was fine, but it was not nearly as natural or edifying as praying Morning Prayer together as a family from the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer, which has become our weekly Sunday domestic service for such a time as this.

  6. Covid 19 virus has shown us that we need to redeisn current church buildings as they no longer are fit-for-purpose – a safe haven for prayer, community gatherings, Eucharist and places for meditation and funerals. We are able to design safe buildings for livestock such as cattle, fowl and pigs by sanitising entrances, ion controls, immunisation etc. Why not consult people for good suggestions to implement some ideas. Already, seperate entry and exits are being recommended; as are handwashing facilities; cantors rather than choirs; abandon ‘holy smoke’ as insense causes many, even my whole family, to cough and weep. Some flowers and hay fever has a similar effect. Rest rooms or lack of them are another problem.

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