Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I attended mass in person.
If you had told me prior to the pandemic that I would ever go a year without going to church, I would not have believed it. I grew up Catholic and going to mass for Sundays and holydays was an important part of our faith practice. I was in church as a teen more than most because I became our small country church’s only organist in my second year of high school. I spent many years in music and liturgical ministries and, although I hadn’t been active in them in recent years, I still considered taking part in mass and receiving the Eucharist a vital part of my faith life.
Last March, when the severity of COVID was first becoming apparent, I decided not to go to mass for fear of exposing my father, one week before New York State went into lockdown and the churches temporarily closed. I began participating via televised mass as my mother had done when she was ill. Over time, churches here resumed services, first outdoors or broadcast to congregants in their cars in the parking lot. Later, indoor services were permitted with distancing, masking, temperature checks, pre-registration, and other measures in place, although the bishops have kept the dispensation from in-person attendance in place.
Because being part of a large group of people who are speaking and singing is inherently more risky than being at home or in a grocery store, I had made a personal decision not to attend mass in person until I was fully vaccinated. Last week, two weeks after my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I called the church to make a reservation to attend the Saturday vigil mass yesterday.
I arrived early, knowing that there would be a check-in process and that we would need to maintain spacing. I was masked, of course, and gave my name to the volunteer at a table, who found my name and contact information on her list. They keep the information on file so they can call if a positive test is reported. There was a temperature check and the distribution of a leaflet with the day’s music. I was allowed to choose my own seat among the pews, although every other row was blocked off by purple cords draped around the end. I sat near the music ministers, so that I could watch my friend play the organ and see the cantor who would be leading the singing.
If I had to choose one word for the experience, it would be stark. This is partly a function of it being Lent, which is a penitential season. There are no flowers and the sanctuary is kept as simple as possible. What was striking to me, though, was the space between all the ministers. The priest, deacon, two lectors, and single altar server were in chairs scattered around the altar and ambo, which is necessary for viral reasons. It amplified my sense of separation from them and from the rest of the congregation. Only people from the same household can sit in a group, so many of us were sitting alone.
I felt most like I was part of the assembly when we were praying aloud together. Although we were masked and there were far fewer of us than our pre-pandemic numbers, our voices carried well and we could hear one another, ironically helped by the acoustics of the space without so many bodies to absorb the sound. This was, however, a double-edged sword. During the prelude, I was annoyed by a couple behind me discussing home improvement projects, no doubt unaware how well their masked voices carried in the space.
As often happens, there were emotional moments for me during the liturgy, although not when I had expected them. As part of the prelude, my friend improvised on the Irish hymn tune St. Columba, which is often used with the text “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”. It is one of my favorite tunes. Back in the days when I could play the organ and was practicing, it was one of the hymns I would sing as a personal prayer. I was very grateful to hear it yesterday.
When we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, I was particularly drawn to the last phrase, “deliver us from evil.” I am still pondering the full implications of being drawn to that at this time. Like most Christians, I have prayed this prayer thousands of times. It is a testament to its strength that it reveals different aspects of faith as our circumstances change.
The third moment was that I choked up as we started to sing the Lamb of God. This simple text, which is placed in the liturgy shortly before communion, has long been my favorite prayer of the mass ordinary. Long ago, I set it in a choral anthem paired with a text from Isaiah. Again, a prayer that I have recited or sung thousands of times but that was somehow connecting with me in a new way.
Strangely, the thing that I expected to be very emotional was not and perhaps goes back to my feeling of starkness. In order to maintain distancing, communion was not distributed at the usual time. Instead, we prayed the concluding rite and then received communion. The priest and the deacon went to positions at the end of the far aisles and the congregants, keeping six feet of distance between them, filed up to receive the host, step away, briefly lower their mask to consume the host, then immediately process to the doors by a different route and exit, all while the communion hymn was being sung. Because I was near the front of the church, that meant exiting during the hymn without an opportunity to join in that prayer. Intellectually and from the public health viewpoint, this procedure for communion makes perfect sense. It keeps people from congregating in the building or around the exits and minimizes the chance of spreading the virus. From a liturgical perspective, though, it feels stark. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving and the word communion has the same roots as the word community; this more isolating experience feels counter to that. As someone who has study music and liturgy, it also was very difficult for me to leave while there was still sung prayer ongoing.
I was grateful to be able to attend in person but I don’t think that I will try to do it every week yet. Due to the cleaning protocols involved, there are only two masses per weekend; with fewer masses and reduced capacity, I don’t want to deprive other people from being there by taking up space myself on a regular basis. I do hope to go once during Holy Week, Easter Vigil if possible or Holy Thursday if the Vigil is in high demand.
Otherwise, I will continue to participate from home until our area progresses to the point where we can gather safely in large numbers again, when we can exchange a sign of peace, when things will not be so stark.
When we do get to that point, there will be another, more complex decision to make, which is how much of the politics and abuses of power in the church itself I can continue to tolerate. The clergy of the church continue to grapple with its own history and legacy of crimes, abuse, and sin, or worse, some grapple and some continue to deny. Meanwhile, lay people are not given the opportunity to fully use their gifts in service to the people and the church.
The pandemic has blunted the effect of having this struggle before me every week. I haven’t decided yet if I can take it on so consistently again. I used to go to mass every week, even when I cried because of the pain. I did it because I couldn’t imagine being separated from the Eucharist. Because of the pandemic, I now know that spiritual communion is a reality, that I can feel close to Christ and to creation and all people, even when I’m not able to attend mass in person.
I don’t know what I will choose to do.
Another aspect of life in which I dwell in mystery.