One pastor’s qualms

pandemic 1We gathered last night with about 25 parishioners who will be among the ministers welcoming people back to church as we celebrate public Masses beginning this weekend. It was great to see faithful parishioners I haven’t seen in more than two months, and it was wonderful to have a gathering in church that involved more than six people. But.

Seating just these 25 people while honoring the physical distancing protocols was tricky. It required patience, flexibility and creativity on the part of those doing the seating and those who were being seated. Yes, several of them were told where they had to sit! Will everyone who comes to Mass be so willing? Will everyone wait patiently at six-foot distances the way these people did? We also discovered that if we are honest in terms of the necessary distancing, you won’t fit as many people into our pews as we’d imagined.

More than the technical aspects I increasingly struggle with whether this is the right thing to do. We aren’t going to concerts or ball games, festivals or fairs, and we won’t be going, it seems, for quite some time. Most of us aren’t going to restaurants or coffee shops, if they are even open. Many of us are going to the grocery store once or twice a week, at most. Some of us have stopped going to certain businesses because of their woeful lack of precaution.

Going to church, then, is one of the few activities – maybe the only activity – that comes to mind in which people are gathering in groups, such as we will at our parish this weekend. And we’ll be doing it three times. Is it safe? Is it appropriate? Is it responsible? Those are questions that haunt me through this entire process of returning. And I can’t honestly and definitively answering any of them in the affirmative.

When we began sharing our Masses on-line back in March I had two concerns: that we do it in a manner that was respectful to the liturgy; and that we do it responsibly, in that ministers who joined us in church were able to conduct their ministry in a safe manner. More or less, I’m confident we have been respectful and responsible.

As we supposedly “return” to Mass I have those same concerns. (I put “return” in quotes because 1) few members of our usual assembly will decide to return at this time, which is understandable and, to be honest, laudable; and 2) because what they encounter will be starkly different than what they last experienced in mid-March.) Now, I am concerned that the accommodations we are imposing, all of which I appreciate and advocate, also compromise, I fear, the integrity of what we are doing. The various precautions pertaining to registering, gathering, singing, receiving communion, wearing masks – all of these are necessary and yet all of them are problematic to a worthy celebration of the Mass. Furthermore, and of greatest concern, I fear we’re being irresponsible as we open doors and invite people back? Aren’t we luring people, some who are potentially among the most vulnerable, into a situation that puts them at greater risk and puts others at risk?

Horror of horrors, all of this prompt me to wonder if Mass on-line isn’t more respectful and responsible than what we’ll begin doing this weekend! (Which is why we’ll continue to offer that possibility.)

There’s no conclusion to this, or at least not one that’s satisfactory. Our doors will be open, literally propped open so that people don’t touch the handles. We’ll celebrate Mass with the limited number of people who choose to participate and reserved a spot, as well as those ministers who answered our call for assistance. We’ll follow all the necessary precautions as best we can. The Eucharist will be celebrated! And yet, as pained as I am to ask, Is that the right thing to do? And, to those who choose to join us for Mass on-line: don’t apologize, we’re glad you’ll be watching. The reality is, to take grossly out of context what Jesus once said to Martha regarding Mary, you (may) have chosen the better part.

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