Let me start this off with a big ol 2020 caveat: if you’re concerned about transmitting or contracting covid, whether because of an underlying condition or an immunocompromised person in your life, you should be free to stay home and exercise every precaution. This is not a post telling people with depressed immune systems or chronic diseases to suck it up and start taking public transit again. If you feel safest at home, you should be free to remain there. And thanks to an increasingly digital economy, it is actually conceivable that someone could shelter at home more or less indefinitely.
I’ve noticed a troubling trend in coverage, whether secular or religious, identifying people who are eager to get back to in person worship as either foolhardy (at best) or selfishly reckless (at worst). At first I was perplexed because the same voices were generally in favor of (safely) patronizing newly re-opened restaurants and hair salons and other small businesses who had struggled mightily during lockdown. I was further perplexed because my church, at least, mandates the most slavishly observant covid protocol-adherence of nearly anywhere else I’ve been during this madness, including doctor’s offices, airports, grocery stores, and restaurants.
As the lockdown has continued to ease and summer has marched on, I’ve continued to observe a disturbing apathy among believers coupled with outright sneering disdain from the culture at large when it comes to a return to public worship. The latter surprises me not at all, but the former is a bit alarming.
At a glance, I can see two obvious reasons for the reluctance to resume in person services. First, if you aren’t Catholic and you don’t believe there’s anything beyond fellowship, great music, and compelling preaching happening up there on the altar, the stage, or whatever you might call your focal point of worship, then, I suppose that makes sense. While you can’t totally replicate it streaming at home or in a small house church kind of setting, you can probably come fairly close with enough creativity and a good wifi connection.
But we Catholics, you see, cannot.
Don’t get me wrong, we can (and we must, I’d argue with increasing urgency) form small, intimate communities of faith and get in the habit of worshiping together in informal and ordinary spaces like our homes and places of learning. If we don’t share our faith organically with our family and friends in our homes and in our ordinary lives, our faith is not going to survive what is coming. But let us not presume for a moment that the Mysterium fidei can be supplanted by Zoom Bible studies and conveniently live-streamed Masses said by our favorite celebrity priests.
It is wonderful that we have unleashed the gospel anew across what Pope Benedict called “the digital continent” during these deeply troubling and uncertain times over the past 5 months. But we must never forget that our primary obligation as believers places us firmly and messily in the midst of real people in a real building with the Real Presence of Jesus Christ Sunday after Sunday, and yes, in most places the Sunday obligation is still dispensed and so we are not bound by canon law to attend Mass, particularly so where it is difficult or impossible to do so, as is sadly the case in so many dioceses around the world. But if we can go, shouldn’t we?
If we are well enough, if we are resuming our normal lives in so many other ways, doesn’t it feel essential that we return to the pews to worship our Jesus as He asks to be worshiped, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
And doesn’t it seem important to take up space in this way so that other people don’t forget that public worship is, for Catholic Christians, very much an essential service?
And doesn’t it seem important so that we, ourselves, do not forget this?
Again, if you are frail or elderly or have any other reason to be exceedingly cautious in striving to avoid this virus, this is not a adjournment to go out and put your life on the line, so to speak. But if one has resumed in person shopping in stores, visiting doctor’s offices for in person appointments, getting hair cuts and buying bookshelves and potted plants and catching up over drinks or coffee…and if all these things can be done safely and prudently, then shouldn’t we be beating down the doors of our local parishes and begging our priests for the Blessed Sacrament?
Because that is one thing we can’t replicate, remotely.
Or one Person, rather. Jesus comes to us through His word and He is present to us in our vocations, and of course He is omnipotent because, hello, God. But there is only one place we can receive Him physically. Touch Him. Consume Him. Be transformed and renewed by Him.
And it can’t happen over Skype.
Our culture desperately needs to know this. The world needs to know it. Jesus doesn’t make telehealth visits. He spits in the mud and touches ears and pulls hands into bloodied wounds and He rests on our tongues and in our bellies. And worship of Him is not predominately a private, personal affair best kept behind closed doors and safely tucked away in private residences.
The ultimate form of public worship – participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – is really one of the most fundamentally corporate thing we can do as human beings. It’s the most massively public experience imaginable. Because not only are we united in fellowship with our surrounding congregation, during Holy Mass, we are united with the entire communion of saints, with heaven itself.
And it is essential. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.
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