This past week, the Commonwealth of Virginia announced that it would immediately implement the just announced CDC guidelines which stated that fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear masks in outdoor or most indoor settings, except on public transit, in health care facilities, and in congregate settings. Throughout the pandemic at national, state and local levels that last phrase “congregate settings” have included churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship. Following on the heels of the Commonwealth’s announcement, our local diocese announced that because of some ambiguity in the announcement, that we were to not inhibit or challenge people who wanted to not wear masks during the celebration of Mass. While we did not agree that there was ambiguity, we complied. As folks and families approached the doors of the church they were not asked if they were vaccinated, but were simply informed that “fully vaccinated people were not required to wear masks but were also free to wear them if they desired.”
Our parish is a reflection of the nation with degrees of polarization fueled by the ongoing politicization of the pandemic, distrust of the public health system in some quarters, questions about the vaccine itself, and a host of other thoughts and concerns. We have a small number of parishioners, very small, who are adamant that none of the precautions put in place over the last 18 months were necessary – their reasoning ranges from nonsensical to misinformed. Apart from this very small group, parishioners who have been present in Mass for the pandemic have been adhering to the precautions.
Then with little advance warning, we have a new set of ground rules that relies on people doing the right thing. It goes to the core of trust within a community. From the view of my completely non-scientific poll from the sidewalk, people did the right thing.
When informed, there was joy and relief among the fully vaccinated. Perhaps 25% chose to leave their masks on. Some because of an on-going abundance of caution. Some out of solidarity with family members not fully vaccinated. Some for reasons unspoken. More than a few people remarked, they had received full vaccination but it had not been two weeks – and so left their masks on. And the folks not vaccinated were still happy at this sign of hope that we have light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. From the experience of one parish on one weekend in May, people did the right thing.
What does all this portend about the larger society and public square as we move forward? From a technical point of view – nothing. The sample size was too small, too select and more anecdotal than quantitative… or even qualitative. But it was faithful and hopeful – and that is enough for now.
As a celebrant at Masses this weekend, there was – or so it seemed to me – a new-found energy in the full active participation of the people. It was more than their responses no longer being muffled by masks. There was a joy that helped “raise the volume.” There was a holy praise that ascended to the heavens on Ascension Sunday. It was good.
Come the end of May, the governor has indicated that “all restrictions” will be lifted – details forthcoming. Meanwhile business owners will figure out what that means for their operations and employees. Companies will continue planning for the hybrid workplace of the future. Here in the parish, we will figure out when to roll back some of our procedures and processes. We had stopped taking temperatures at the door already. Will we keep the reservation system in place so as to control the number of parishioners at any one Mass – or will we increase the number of available “seats” at each Mass? Our aisles and pews are marked to indicate reservation seating location. When will we remove them? That would certainly be a welcomed sign of hope! What to do and the timing is not clear.
What is clear is that we will strive to be faithful, be people of Hope, and continue to be a community that trusts in its own members to do the right thing.