As more Catholics resume physical attendance at Mass in areas where governors and bishops have issued policies easing COVID-19 lockdown rules, pastors and parish ministers around the country will carry many concerns with them when they open their church’s doors.
Their rigorous attention to practices and protocols, focused on keeping worshipers healthy, will be right and just—the unquestioned top priority for an endless string of planning meetings. But let’s hope the agenda will leave room for one thing alongside the technical factors on everybody’s mind, namely a factor to be celebrated and nourished in everybody’s heart: Parishioners walking through those doors will carry with them a gift for themselves, for their Church family, and for God, in the form of joy.
It might help to recall the visit to Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42, so long as we realize Jesus was encouraging and advising his hard-working host, not scolding her. Martha, “burdened with much serving,” griped about her sister’s sitting transfixed at Jesus’ feet, her distraction from details of hospitality. He responded, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”
That wonderful scene displaying the two women’s compatible forms of relationship with the Lord can help a parish appreciate the multiple dimensions of this day of reopening. People may experience, to one degree or another, a delight of reunion after a period of sorrowful, painful separation. This will be one of the times when those being dutifully welcomed, securely assembled, and carefully distanced can minister to their ministers. We all silently sing, Hallelujah.
Some folks may not feel the electricity, partly because their minds are still trapped in tedious memories, with masks on and emotions off. But others will kneel with new reverence, or sigh as they look up at Christ on the cross, or smile at their favorite Blessed Mother statue. Receiving the Body of Christ will be climactic, quite different from lining up for bureaucratic check-ins or grocery stores check-outs.
This is a great time for priests and pastoral staff members to accompany their people as they evangelize each other. Watch the Spirit bring a special gift to every soul. Just as profoundly, watch them embody the New Evangelization before Mass as passers-by observe them going to church. After Mass, hear them tell stories about how it felt to be back.
“If other people knew how many Catholics have spent time crying over not being able to go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, they would be impressed,” a friend remarked to me last week. We were discussing the news that the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend will allow the resumption of public Masses on May 23-24. May we all be impressed by sights of hunger and satiation, on that weekend or whenever.
Rev. Robert Garrow, pastor of Saint Anthony de Padua Parish in South Bend, witnessed to the dual significance of this time in a letter he sent to parishioners. He attached two pages reporting on the changes one would see—in the pews, at the ambo, etc. He wrote about gradually “resuming our ordinary life” as a parish and moving toward “a more normalized schedule.” But to this rulebook motif he added more transcendent language, giving incarnational faith its due. He reflected on Communion as “a gift” to be anticipated: “What joy it will be to be able to come back together to show our veneration and love to God.”
This pent-up excitement seemed to set the stage for all ministers and parish members to be visionary. I wondered if someone in the Saint Anthony family might be moved to prepare a unique expression of happiness over this homecoming.
It occurred to me a family could bring to Mass a bouquet of flowers. Or a reasonable facsimile: A talented parishioner has previously posted (as a free gift) an online art project that would yield crayon-colored paper flowers. Someone could bring a spiritual bouquet recalling acts of devotion performed for the Lord during self-isolation. Another returnee who typically wore tee-shirts might come dressed in his “Sunday best.”
The return to public Masses, after all, will not be a time for show-off gestures. All the world is in a stance of humility, seeking healing after lockdown and obeying strict rules because we’re still vulnerable. But that need not preclude us Catholics from moments of spontaneous feelings and romantic imagination. These are long-awaited blessings that must be shared with others—and affirmed by our ministers. The Lord wants the company of both Marthas and Marys. After a time of so much distancing, the joys of this reunion will not be taken from us.