Mass After the Pandemic by Gene Ciarlo

I wonder how many Catholics who used to attend Mass every Sunday before the onslaught of the pandemic have chosen not to return. The habit of going to Mass every week was broken when the obligation, real or imagined, ceased to exist. After all, we are creatures of habit. Now it is easy to stay home on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings. No guilt, no social pressure, no gathering around the Table of Remembering.

There is a certain type of Catholic who must have been profoundly devastated when the virus caused churches to cease public worship and communal gatherings. The social dimension and vitality of their religion was very important to them, and suddenly it was gone. They could still resort to Zoom or some other way of attending Mass virtually, but the absence of mixing and mingling with real people created an enormous vacuum in their lives. Something personal and warm was missing, and no digital worship experience or livestream from New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral could possibly replace going to church every Sunday as part of the program of being an active Catholic and feeling like a vital member of the community.

On the other hand, there is another, perhaps more common type of religious person who views Mass attendance and participation from a completely different perspective. These are people of faith who tend to “privatize” religion so that it becomes a “me-and-God” thing. They might even be wary of those they consider “churchy people” who are always at the parish, involved in everything. A faithful Catholic’s behavior and devotion, they feel, ought to be between that person and God. For Catholics of this mindset who used to be faithful Mass attendees, the pandemic might not have been particularly detrimental to the practice of their faith. In fact, it may have been a relief not to feel pangs of guilt when the weekly Mass obligation rolled around.

Here I have sketched, in broad strokes, two types of Catholic. In my opinion, neither is ideal; both are lacking in a true New Testament, Last Supper, Jesus-with-us spirit. Nor should we expect every Catholic to be of one mind, singular in our thoughts, feelings, and convictions about attending a Eucharistic celebration on a regular basis and our sense of what makes a Christian community. That biblical, universal Christian community is an ideal that may not be realistic in our mundane day-to-day lives. But it is an ideal to be aware of and to strive toward.

Toward the end of the last century, there was a very popular book by Robert Bellah and others entitled Habits of the Heart. A particular phrase struck me toward the end of a chapter on religion: “Religious individualists would have to learn that solitude without community is merely loneliness.” We may never be of one mind regarding the Eucharist and worshiping together as a community of “like-minded” Christians, but we must do all we can to alleviate spiritual loneliness.

The thrust of biblical religion from the beginning was and is community. This is not the same as the “churchy,” meeting-and-greeting social parish community I referenced above, nor is it the “community of one” approach advocated by those who choose to go it alone, just themselves and God. Both attitudes are pronouncedly off the mark if we want to use scripture as our model for a religious community.

The community that is biblical, starting from Adam and coursing through all five books of the Pentateuch and into the major and minor prophets, the psalms, and the historical books, is a community of like-minded believers. In the Christian Testament the sense of community is no less pronounced. There is no God without the community of humankind that looks to the Source and Sustainer of a whole people, the poor, faithful remnant of Yahweh otherwise known as the anawim. The biblical community must find a way to live with the ups and downs, the politics and pandemics, the authoritarians, autocrats, and democrats, the environmentalists, nationalists, socialists, and those who want to use and abuse the goods of this earth until they are depleted. These and more are part of the community of humanity that is embraced by Jesus when he says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28).

The pandemic has thrown a harsh light on our beliefs and practices. It may not be apparent publicly, but each of us is confronted personally, maybe for the first time in our Christian lives, with just how valuable the Eucharistic celebration is to us. The “habit of the heart” has been shattered to reveal to each of us what it means to be a Catholic Christian. The virus has catalyzed this historic moment. People who used to own up to a religion and unabashedly say “I am a Catholic” are losing that sense of belonging-with-desire for regular communal participation in Catholic life and practice.

Speaking personally, most of my friends and relatives—and I dare say “most”—who were baptized Catholics have little appreciation-through-understanding of Catholicism and even less commitment to any particular Catholic lifestyle. Mass attendance during the pandemic was not on their list of important losses. They pray, they talk to God, they ask for favors, but they do not consider themselves necessarily belonging to the body of the Catholic Church. I do not talk to them about religion because I know how they feel: it is a private matter, they tell me, which is often an escape hatch from any serious discussion.

The other side of this, however, is their built-in awareness of the rudiments, the duties and obligations of Catholic life. They were good catechism students, aware of what the church says about the sins of lying, cheating, and stealing—what we used to talk about as kids in confession—and all the major moral evils they decry as adults in today’s society. This is a sort of “secular morality” that, wittingly or unwittingly, has developed over the centuries by our Judeo-Christian cultural rootedness. If questioned, my relatives may know all the dos and don’ts of the religion, but its élan vital—its creative, life-giving spirit—is missing. Their sense of religious expression stems from learned habits, not habits of the heart but habits of the mind. A heart and soul for the Unknown and Unknowable, a deep-down concern and interest in matters of the spirit, are almost totally absent until something traumatic happens in their lives to shake them from being solidly ensconced in terrestrial realities. As for their children and their children’s children, unless something changes radically in the church itself and its call to live a Christian life, there is little hope to lean on. Even the basic, skeletal prayer that was part of their parents’ lives will have evaporated completely. The age of secularism is in full bloom.

How will Christianity continue to evolve in our post-pandemic future? I do not think it will be the path of fundamentalist evangelicals who have latched on, inordinately, to “what the bible says” because it is an easy way to settle arguments without depth of thought or understanding. This only leads to an authoritarian and exclusive kind of Christian life filled with contradictions and opposing personal points of view. Outside of certain evangelical circles, this biblical-literalist approach has less and less credence in today’s society.

I believe that the hope of Christianity is for all Christian bodies to get together in an ecumenical council. Could and would other religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices be part of it? Why not, if they are willing? The European Union brought the nations of Europe together, not without struggle and disagreement but always with a commitment to making the political project work. What is killing us as disciples of Christ is our divisions and separations, just as a lack of mutual understanding and acceptance is what severs bonds between nations. We don’t need Anglicans and Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Methodists, Baptists and Independents, Pentecostals and Evangelists, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and on and on. This is not what Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha were all about. “That all might be one,” as Jesus said, recorded in John’s gospel. When “all are one,” the world will know that Jesus has come again, for the first time since the first time.

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 

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