President Trump recently announced “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors.” While his powers to do so were questionable to say the least, I am glad that he considers houses of worship and their religious services essential. I would not disagree on that particular point, but would note that a large percentage of citizens do not attend weekend worship services at all plus another group of of households that participate irregularly. My Church has its own C&E Catholic faithful (that’s Christmas and Easter only – although to be fair, Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday are also part of that particular mix). So, while I would agree on the essential nature of Mass and worship services, obviously they are not essential in the minds of all.
But I would offer a fine distinction about offering essential services. I suspect if you ask most priests, pastors, ministers, rabbis, and imans, the temporary closure of our places of worship did not bring a halt to offering essential services. Marriages, baptisms, and funerals took place – albeit with extremely limited numbers of people present – but others gathered virtually on one of many live streaming possibilities. Graveside services were also celebrated with masks and social distancing. Confessions were heard in person but in places where protocols of safety and the Seal of the Confessional could be maintained. There was no lack of counseling and praying with people on Facetime, Zoom, and other media. We were not allowed entry to the local hospital where we have served as volunteer chaplains for decades – yet we found ways to virtually be present and offer prayer services with the family present in the hospital room and online.
One week we had never lived streamed a Mass, the next week we were beginners celebrating our first success. Now we are grizzled veterans using three video feeds with a director moving between “scenes”, and our audio connected to church sound system all the while being tweaked by the sound engineer. We figured out the lighting. We have folks managing the Facebook live feed and engaging with parishioner’s comments. And the parishioners tell us how much they love this new, essential service. Apparently it has its own special attraction for at least one feline friend.
The lay ministers and parishioners have not been passively waiting for the doors of the church to open. The ministries and groups in the parish found ways to be together virtually. The book club met, the rosary group prayed, the lectors continued essential formation, children’s faith formation became virtual – and the list goes on. To borrow a phrase, “essential” became the mother of invention.
The parish came together to support a Catholic Charities homeless encampment, not only in an outpouring of donations but in direct service to the camp. The parish continued its outreach ministries to the poor, just six feet apart and masked.
There is no question our parish missed coming together for Sunday Mass, seeing friends and members of their “pew community,” and celebrating and receiving Eucharist – but while the church might not have been open, there was lots of essential services being offered and received.
Two weeks ago, we resumed the celebration of weekday mass. This past Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, we offered four Masses open to parishioners – and we live streamed one Mass. We wore masks, we maintained social distancing, and we figured out our next steps. The majority of parishioners and their families stayed home believing it was too soon for them, but they paused and engaged with us on live stream.
We never stopped offering essential services. We never stopped being a community of faithful believing Christian Catholics. We were always free to live the gospel. We figured out all the above. We figured out how and when to open our doors in a manner that was consistent with human flourishing and freedom.
It was always essential to be Church. We were and will continue to be pandemic or no.