Because of the pandemic, the use of face masks in liturgy is mandated for certain kinds of interactions, such as giving Communion. How are we to “read” them as a sign? And how do we integrate them as part of our ars celebrandi?
In the wider American culture, the face mask has recently become a flashpoint of controversy. Strangely, resistance to wearing face masks is somehow shaping up as a masculinity issue. An article in The Week expounded on this point: Some people seem to think that wearing face masks emasculates men. Face masks make you look weak, our president has claimed. Face masks enforce cowardice, the editor of the Catholic journal First Things tweeted (he later apologized, after an outcry). Protesters against pandemic precautions have said similar things, and refusal to wear a face mask is being framed as an expression of personal liberty. Naturally, there has been robust pushback on all of these claims.
Could the masculinity question be playing in our churches as well? The guidelines sent to all American bishops by Archbishop Blair, chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, deemed the wearing of a mask by the priest at Mass to be a “liturgical counter-sign” and forbid its use at any time. But they never explained why and I honestly don’t get it. Do they think that wearing a mask will make our priests look like weaklings and cowards, unmanly men?
Wearing a mask doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for the Church in Europe. (As an aside, I must say that the president of Slovakia, Zuzana Čaputová wowed me in the early days of the pandemic by wearing beautiful face masks in coordinating colors to match whatever else she was wearing. Her whole cabinet wore them at their swearing-in. Indeed Slovakia has the best rate of containment in Europe due, in part, to an early and consistent use of masks.) The Italian clergy are required by law to wear them when celebrating liturgy publicly. Gloves are required too. Pope Francis has asked that everyone obey the rules set down for public health, and the priests are doing it, thereby not only protecting their people and themselves, but also setting a good example. In Germany, the priests wear masks while distributing Communion too.
Granted, face masks are no joy to wear, as we have all had occasion to find out. All questions of masculinity aside, the comfort question is a real one. Given the choice, I imagine that anyone — male or female — would prefer to be free of them. Nevertheless, their practical utility in protecting others and one’s self from the virus has been attested by our best scientific and medical authorities, and public safety is a higher good than personal comfort.
As a symbol in general, I don’t think they need be so bad. What do you think of when you see someone wearing a face mask? When I see a mask these days, I think not of cowards or weaklings but of the essential workers and health care professionals who came to the rescue of people in distress and grave need. It carries an aura of responsibility.
But what about masks in liturgy? Of course a church is not a health clinic or a supermarket. We’re in church to celebrate the liturgy not to perform medical procedures. The setting imposes a certain aesthetic, a certain style. It’s appropriate to ask how face masks fit in. If, as we have been told, the pandemic will continue until a vaccine is available and this is still months or a year or more away, perhaps we ought to embrace the face mask and make it our own, liturgically. Perhaps we ought to bless them?
These thoughts lead me to yet another thought: why not have priests wear face masks in liturgical colors, marked with crosses, using fabrics and ribbons worthy of the liturgical event at which they are presiding? Jesus never wore a mask, it’s true. But he never wore a chasuble either. Have we lost our ability to seize the moment and transform an act born of necessity into something beautiful? Where is our panache? Where is our sense of style? How can we be falling so far behind Slovakia?
So I did the obvious thing: I googled “liturgical face masks.” And, not surprisingly, I discovered that I am behind the curve. It has been done. A religious goods store in Louisville is selling them. The damask fabric doesn’t look very breathable, but I haven’t held one in my hand or tried it on. Perhaps they are lined with soft cotton and are as comfortable as anything else one might wear. To be clear: I am not endorsing this product, but I give them credit for trying to put the face mask into relationship with the rest of the vesture the priest wears at Mass.
It’s the only example I found on line. (I did find a fetching devotional mask, made in Hawaii, featuring St. Damien and St. Marianne, whose heroism in the face of contagious disease is inspirational. But it wasn’t particularly liturgical.) Are there others of a liturgical variety, handmade ones, for example? If you know of any, perhaps you could describe them in the comment box.
My view is this: Let’s see if we can rise to the occasion. Fabric artists, the Church needs you! A liturgical face mask may only be a necessity for six months or a year, but a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Perhaps you can come up with something for liturgical use that is better than what one would wear to the grocery store. Later on it will become a collector’s item.
Featured image is from Tonini Church Supply Co.’s Liturgical Facemask product.