Liturgical Face Masks

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.

11 comments

  1. Masculinity? And we priests routinely dress up in what looks to modern eyes like female attire! Pull the other one, as we say in the UK. It’s got bells on it.

    And good for the Pope. Obviously, common sense.

    AG

  2. An Orthodox friend sent me this comment on Ms Ferrone’s posting:

    Well, this IS roughly how the maniple thing got started…!

  3. I was saying this a few weeks ago, that presiders and deacons should wear liturgically colored masks appropriate for the day and season!

    I’m good so far for back and white!!

    1. They even have one in rose. I’d say that’s somewhat pessimistic.
      Hopefully by the Third Sunday of Advent we won’t need to wear a mask on the altar. If we do I’ll stick with the recommended violet.
      I have a friend who calls the color Bazooka, after the old bubble gum.

  4. I’ve spent the past few days watching videos of dioceses and bishops presiding. (What else am I going to do at home?) For the most part, I’m seeing the Blair’s directives are being ignored, about both about the timing of Communion and the wearing of masks. I’m worried because my diocese is leaning that way (although it may be a month or two before we have public Masses).

    I’d be quite happy to see a crowd-sourcing of which dioceses are actually following those directives (they seem to be a minority), versus those bishops who understand the place for communion within the Mass with priests wearing a mask.

  5. My diocese (Springfield MA) allows public masses with 6′ apart seating. The priest wears a mask while distributing Communion, the parishioners wear masks throughout the service.

    My parish priest had a white mask with a black cross on it on Sunday.

  6. Blair should be ignored.
    If it’s good enough for the Italian clergy to be masked why is it not appropriate here. We use them. They save lives. I like the maniple comment.

  7. Many dioceses, including my own, have ignored that instruction from DC stating that priests should not wear face masks. It’s ridiculous. However, there is a spectrum of emphases in diocesan guidelines as to whether anyone should wear them – from encouraged, how lame is that, to required. As a presider, I’ve determined that I will wear a mask when I am near, but six feet distant from, people, including the entrance procession. But not when I am at the presider’s chair, ambo or altar, or when preaching. While not wearing a mask during the eucharistic prayer, we need to make sure there is a pall over the plate with hosts, or take some other precaution, so as to avoid particles emanating from our mouths and landing on the hosts. The cup is not a factor since only the presider should be drinking from it. And I will definitely wear a mask while distributing communion.

  8. For me has nothing to do with masculinity. I wear a face mask for all the places where it is required. My problem, is that there are many ways to distribute communion or a face mask isn’t needed. That is if you trust the scientists and the doctors who specialize infectious diseases. In my church there is a few between me and the communicant. Give communion with outstretched arms. We are in front of the person for seconds. Is there priests if we put on a mask for that brief encounter we are adding to the fear and not adding to the hope and all the good news of what is going on in our church right now. People are coming back, asking to get their marriage is taken care of and re- evaluating their lives. At the most intimate moment of the liturgy, how can a mask be a good idea? Many of the specialists that I know feel the church is losing credibility by not following what is known in science and acting out of fear.

  9. I think it is irresponsible for the mass to be conducted by someone who could be an asymptomatic carrier of a potentially fatal disease, while not wearing a mask. We are having someone serve us something we consume. It was most likely consecrated on the alter by someone maskless. In Massachusetts, with terrible Covid stats, this is not ok. Sadly, many people go forth not questioning. They assume that because it is the church, that they will be taken care of and it will be ok. Most of these folks are who I consider “Old Faithfuls” and will not question the authority of their pastor (let alone the bishop). “Old Faithfuls” are also in the vulnerable zone for Covid-19. I simply don’t understand what is going on here….

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