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Being together again at Mass

People attend a Sunday Mass together at Our Lady of the Visitation Church in Darnestown, Maryland, in June 2021. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Our Church is currently encountering an enormous challenge that reaches across the entire globe in the wake of the pandemic. We must determine how best to welcome and to urge our people to return to our regular Sunday Eucharist, and it is a pastoral dilemma like none that we have faced before.

Our people are now growing more comfortable in venues that take them outside of their homes – thanks be to God. We are finding more confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccines and the protocols that are in place in so many public spaces. Proudly, our churches developed patterns of safety and sanitation that are in many cases the envy of countless other environments.

Nevertheless, we still must confront the impact of the reality of many Catholics having been away from Sunday Eucharist for more than two years during the pandemic, and its influence on their spiritual lives. We must re-energize the desire to be with one another at Mass as an essential component of our ecclesial reality — one that virtual participation simply can never satisfy or match. Most pastors are reporting that our church attendance is slowly increasing in numbers, as local churches have lifted or modified the restrictions and regulations that were enacted in order to control and curtail the pandemic.  

We have a long way to go even to return to the percentages of Catholics who usually attended Sunday Mass before the beginning of the pandemic. Those decreasing attendance numbers were already a source of great concern for Church leaders since they represented a noticeable and escalating decline from prior generations.

Sunday Eucharist has always been a participatory activity. As helpful and even as indispensable as our virtual services may have been over the past two years, they could not offer that facet of worship that technology simply could not substitute.  Receiving the Eucharist at Mass is an action that demands physical encounter.   Communal prayer, singing, extending the Sign of Peace, being in the prayerful presence of neighbors and friends in adjoining pews, having youngsters and adults assist around the altar, and viewing the smiling faces of visitors and fellow parishioners cannot be captured by a video camera.

We must help our parishioners rediscover the religious value of encountering one another in prayer as an expression of the worship and presence of God. Jesus reminded his followers that, “Again, (amen,) I say to you, if two of you agree on Earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”[Matthew 18:19-20]

Our mission is even more complicated coming as it does in the face of our contemporary society that has almost divinized individualism to the extent of often rejecting the necessity for any physical community. Our technology devices have made it possible to supplant many once routine community engagements. Our virtual worship events may have muddled our experience of being an assembly at prayer while at the same time adding to a sense of not needing social interactions beyond our technological gadgets.

The ancient church, once it was free to gather openly after the period of public persecutions had ceased, treasured the very act of gathering to offer Mass. The Roman Church in fact designated gathering churches [collecta] where the faithful would first congregate and then joyfully process to the church where they would then celebrate the Eucharist with the bishop, priests and deacons. The very action of gathering was itself an important part of the worship ritual. Those early Christians, when they no longer had to hide in catacombs or in clandestine places in order to pray, rejoiced in coming together before they even celebrated the Eucharist.

When we offer Mass, we are to do so with others. Even priests who may offer, on occasion, a private Mass are urged to do so with at least another person to assist at the altar. At Mass, we are expected to be together with others at prayer.   Even before the Church’s requirement to participate at Sunday Mass, there was the need to come together with others to encounter the Eucharistic Lord. It is that value of praying together and being with one another that remains such a great challenge as we set aside the virtual for the actual offering of the Eucharist.

During the pandemic, we carried on many necessary activities thanks to the power of technology from our work, school, medical visits, and communication with others. We have watched Mass, but we have not fully participated at Mass through the observing of a Mass being broadcast over social media. We are now faced with the task of helping people who may have grown too satisfied with merely watching Mass to rediscover the essential value of being together with others at Mass.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium [#14] refers to full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy as a goal to be achieved. We are never intended to be mere spectators at worship, but participants according to our sacramental identity as baptized and confirmed members of the Church. How fortunate we have been to use modern technology to help us to connect with the Church during this time of Covid-19. Now we must invite our people to resume their rightful place within the assembly of the faithful as we begin to restore the ritual actions that we have had to pause during these past two years.

Over recent months, as local jurisdictions continued to remove the remaining restrictions for physical assembly, we certainly noticed how excited and eager people became as they could dine outside the home once again, return to classroom education, and get back to exercising in gyms. In other words, people are anxious to be together with others in many different venues – an experience that they often had to forgo during the past 24-plus months.

I hope that we will also notice more smiles in church and a spirit of animated participation as we continue to return to public worship. Certainly, being able to receive Communion has been the cause of much of the joy in this moment. I also hope and pray that we will also bring back some of the wonder and joy of simply being a people assembled together before the Lord in prayer.

(Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, writes the “What I Have Seen and Heard” column for the Catholic Standard and the Spanish-language El Pregonero newspapers and websites of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.)