I am reading through a letter issued recently by my bishop. Before I say anything further, I must point out that he was consecrated as bishop just last June. However, given the frequent mention of masks and hand sanitizer, the letter tells me he is already quite familiar with the ways and workings of modern bishops.
As I read the letter, my mind drifts back to early March, 2020. In particular, I remember a dreary Sunday Mass I attended with my family. The Mass was tense. The priest seemed distressed, and even lashed out at his flock during the homily. Afterwards, many families exited the church visibly upset, if not shell shocked. There was little joy, hope, or even reasonable composure. All wondered, quite literally, what in the world was going on. More to the point, all pondered whether or not the Church would be there to provide spiritual aid throughout the impending turmoil. Within days the latter question was answered. The obligation to attend Sunday Mass was lifted – the Covid era had arrived.
Such thoughts flood my mind as I stare at the letter in my hands. In it our bishop is informing my diocese that Catholics are now obliged to attend Mass on Sundays. The dispensation is over. He writes: “As Christians, we need the nourishment of Christ’s Word and his Body and Blood to sustain us and give us life!” Oh, do we…now? What of the past two years under both his and his predecessor’s watch? Apparently, Christ’s Body and Blood was not necessary then. Alas, I do not believe the bishop wishes for me to reflect on the past. Reading between the lines, I believe he is essentially saying: Come to Mass now! Pretend like nothing happened…
I will not pretend like nothing happened. Many thoughts, and yes, many angry emotions, arise as I read this letter. The truth is that the past two years have been an unholy spectacle of spiritual abuse. Following that Mass in early March of 2020, we were literally locked out of our churches. We were told by the majority of bishops in the world that a chance to save one life justified the spiritual endangerment of thousands. With that, we were further told that watching Mass online was good enough. Meanwhile, the doors of the local marijuana shops in Canada remained open. It seems that such customers were not satisfied with simply watching YouTube videos of other people smoking marijuana. That’d be like, crazy, man.
Then, everything got downright bizarre. My bishop from two years ago instructed engaged couples to avoid getting married in order to safely maintain a two-meter distance. It never crossed his mind that most engaged couples are already living together and, ahem, not keeping a two-meter distance. Still worse, other bishops instructed their priests to discourage the most necessary sacrament of Baptism. And for me personally, the low point came when my family and I were denied Confession for a period, for fear of Covid. I’m not sure if we were supposed to watch others online go to Confession instead. That’s good enough, right?
When society slowly began opening up, churches outdid themselves, and in many cases outdid governments, with inflicting Covid protocols. It was liturgical performance theater, at least for those able to register to attend Mass. Holy water was replaced with sanitizer. A typical lector would sanitize his hands before reading, and then again after reading, as though somehow Covid might pop up from the pages while he recited the epistle. Ushers became bouncers, and patrolled the churches looking for miscreants wearing masks improperly. Seating required taping off significant portions of the pews. Many of the pews were damaged by incessant cleaning with potent chemicals. And above all, and at all costs, singing was considered a grave sin to be strictly avoided. Singing is not praying twice after all.
All of this sounds scandalous in retrospect. But, of course, it was only the beginning. For soon the great savior of the world arrived, to be promoted and honored incessantly by many bishops. I speak of the Covid vaccine. It was instant division in parishes. I still shake my head at the thought of some bishops following unjust government mandates and banning unvaccinated Catholics from Mass. The lack of fortitude and compassion shown for their flock, I believe, will one day be written into history books.
Such division even affected me personally. I recall the dismal predicament I was in last fall. Essentially, I was in danger of losing my job due to a vaccine mandate – with the added threat of receiving no Employment Insurance payments. Seeking the strength of Christ, I arrived at the church for Mass, only to find not one but two letters from our new bishop. The first letter stated he would not lift one finger to help those threatened with unemployment over vaccine mandates. Thanks. The second letter was asking for money to pay for a synod on the synod on synodality, as well as other wasteful diocesan programs. Thanks, but no thanks. And for the record, my job was saved, thanks to the good work of a lowly auxiliary bishop from Kazakhstan.
Never mind all this. For I have my bishop’s letter before me stating that now the Mass matters enough; that now is the time for the return of the Sunday obligation. Not so, mind you, for the neighboring diocese one hour away from here, but I digress. Now is the time to seek out the many parishioners I have not seen in two years. Now is the time to tell them to unlock their doors, turn off their livestreamed Mass of choice, and come out. Now is the time where the Church has decided it will care for souls once again. Not then, but only now. Why is this so? To be blunt, it is because now requires no courage. Now is easy.
I must conclude with two brief considerations. First, despite the justified emotions of anger, I know it is necessary to forgive those bishops who have inflicted such spiritual abuse the past two years – though I will not hold my breath for an apology. “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye,” (Col 3:13) is not a suggestion, but a commandment. And as a necessary addendum, I commend the priests and bishops who did, in fact, act courageously throughout the contemptible Covid era.
The second point follows the need for forgiveness. We must forgive, yes, but we must not forget either. It would be dishonest to assume everything is normal again, that relationships are mended, that division has ceased, that parishes are financially or spiritually healthy, that many bishops have not acted reprehensibly, and that souls have not been lost. To forget what has transpired is, without a doubt, to invite more of the same.
Yes, we must come to Mass now – and always. But also, we cannot pretend like nothing happened.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of five. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.