Editorial: In Ecclesiis Benedicam Te Domine

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 39

“I would rather endure death for the honor of God than swerve even a hair’s breadth from the Catholic faith.”

— Saint Nicholas Pick

What dictators throughout history have used force to do, we have done willingly. In the beginning of the pandemic, governors made it illegal to go to church or to gather in groups. The people obeyed. When some churches were allowed to open, bishops made it illegal to sing and no one did. Those who were old or sick and in need of care were encouraged not to come.

Outdoor Masses and automobile services grew in popularity. It was a way to circumvent the draconian rules about gathering. Priests invented new rubrics such as new communion lines, anointing with sanitizer rather than holy water, confession outside, and communion on the way to the parking lot.

Presumably, we have lost a whole swath of the faithful during the pandemic. The Church told them that they did not need to go to church in person, and many took that as permission to have the day off. Many watched Mass on the computer. Then many of those watched Mass when they felt like it or a recording when convenient. Now many just sleep in on Sunday. Even when the churches are open for Mass with seating reduced by half, some churches rarely fill the available seats.

Checked at the Door

What has happened to our churches? Instead of places of refuge, they are not open like they used to be. They have been temporarily modified with signs, tape on the floors, and rope on the pews. People were told they had to make an online reservation and their names would be checked at the door. Some large churches are turning people away in spite of an abundance of seating.

Parishes invested in video technology and big screens for overflow rooms. Everyone is masked and discouraged from talking with or meeting other people.

Many of us are suffering from mental stress and physical pain and cannot share it. Many have died without proper funerals, while others have sought to end their lives. Where is the good news of love, joy, and kindness in all this?

To be sure, this trial has brought out the best in some of our priests, bishops, and laity. If the governor of California says that religious services cannot be held inside, the people held Mass outside (something that would not work in South Bend in December). If San Francisco said people could meet in groups of up to twelve, the archbishop arranged to have ten Masses going on in the Cathedral plaza at the same time.

Some of the faithful, taking a clue from the persecution of the early Christians, have resorted to private Masses in their homes, something necessary in Communist China. The automobile Mass, though distasteful, was a creative response.

Lessons Learned

As religious freedom slowly returns, what lessons have we learned? It is not enough to watch a religious service on the computer. We long for the sacraments and for community. Our faith is built on the material: on the Eucharist most of all, but also the other sacraments, especially baptism and the last rites.

The fear of the virus has kept many Protestant churches closed for over a year. Catholics, on the other hand, have a reason to go to the Temple that cannot be replaced. We long for the body and blood of Christ, for which our forebears in the faith were willing to die.

We are called to be part of the body of Christ, and the eye needs the hand just as the head needs the feet. The replacement of socializing with solemnity before and after Mass has been a worthy development. Likewise, some elements such as generous sanctuaries, altar rails, baldacchinos, steps, choir lofts, confessionals, and piazzas had their uses this year, and Catholics should appreciate them in a new way.

Perhaps the lockdowns and ongoing restrictions might have an unexpected effect. Having lost our contact with the sacraments and with each other, we will see more clearly the beauty of the Mass, and the need for beautiful churches in which to celebrate it together.