It is certain that most people of faith are law-abiding, consequently in Ireland, there has been Church compliance with the Government’s severe regulations against public worship, even though all across Europe and indeed Britain, churches have opened much earlier for prayer and services.
Throughout the long, long days of Lockdown, during the worst of the Pandemic, people spoke on many occasions of the real sense of loss in missing family and it is true to say that that also applies to the Church family.
It has indeed been a difficult year for all Churchgoers, but in particular, practicing Catholics who are obliged to attend Mass at least once a week on Sundays. Webcams that had already been installed became the staple for Sunday Mass. Elsewhere, platforms like Facebook Live and YouTube were availed of to ensure that the Mass was available to a new virtual congregation.
In a Time of Crisis
While a great number tuned in to Mass online and were glad to do so, others reported that it rarely, if ever measured up to the ‘real thing’. Many of these speak about missing the spiritual nourishment of Holy Communion as well as the sense of community ‘with’ the faithful which is only truly experienced while gathered together in the physical company of other believers.
When we are watching a Mass being broadcast, we are at a remove from what is going on. There is nothing to stop us getting up and going into another room or actively responding to some distraction. In other words, it is easy literally and figuratively to ‘switch off’. While our attention may be firmly fixed on the box and our efforts to concentrate Trojan, we will never be as much engaged as we would be while physically present within the sacred space of the church.
To quote the Bishop of Achonry, Paul Desmond, “The virtual liturgies were to get us over a crisis, but that can never be the norm. We have to gather together.”
Missing not ‘Being There’
When we are physically present in church the other people who are there with us make up the ‘two or three gathered in my name’ with whom Jesus said he would always be. They might be our neighbours, or people we see regularly at Mass, or they might be complete strangers. We might have greeted them as we came in or just smiled at them inside. We are welcoming them and glad to see them there, because we are all in this together. We are forming the congregation that will celebrate the Mass that is about to begin. There is little sense of this when watching online.
From the time we set out for Mass we have been moving towards communion with others as signified (once) in the Sign of Peace. Mass also brings us gradually into Communion with Jesus. This begins by making us part of the gathered congregation who are members of the Church. We enter into communion with him by joining in mutual prayer, singing, and listening to the Word of God. Again, that sense of mutuality is missing, especially when you are watching the Mass alone in your own home.
The words ‘the Mass is ended’ do not mean this is the end of our Mass-going. They are about an adjournment rather than an ending. Implicit in them is a ‘see you again next week, or maybe even tomorrow’. Going regularly to Mass is not just obeying the law of the Church or to be viewed as an ‘isolated’ moment on Saturday evening or Sunday. It is letting this unique sacramental encounter with God put a meaning and reflection into our lives, which lifts all the days of the week to a level where we can make the living of them be all that Jesus expects them to be, and be thankful to God for them when we next come to Mass.
However, it is also fair to say that live-streamed Masses will probably be a part of parish life from now on. This would certainly enable housebound people to say in touch with Church life and most Churches now have the necessary equipment to make this possible.
It would also be a positive move to continue to livestream funerals in the future, as a way of including family members who are abroad and unable to travel home in time.
The May return to public worship is a cause of joy for those Catholics who go to Mass out of conviction rather than habit. The pandemic has provided us with plenty of time to reflect on the bigger issues of ultimate meaning, which lie always beneath the surface. A key factor in renewing the Church is building community; Covid – 19 has forced each of us to realise that we are all interconnected and interdependent.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan