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Mass, For All The Wrong Reasons

By a Homeschooling Catholic Mom

It is a dreadful feeling when the world shifts and what you thought you knew is thrown into doubt.  Such an event can make one question all the other things that seemed so certain.  A seismic change of this sort has shaken me to the core over these past few months with the shutdown of public Masses due to COVID-19, and regrouping has been a struggle.

My knowledge of the Catholic faith has been cobbled together over the years through podcasts, reading, and online lectures. In other words, it is spotty. I am happy to be corrected when I am mistaken; or, in the case of current events, to develop a deeper understanding of things I thought I had grasped decently well.

I had always thought that my attendance at Mass was somehow “helpful.” I probably thought this through hearing the word “assist” as something the laity do when they attend Mass.  I suspected it had less to do with being the lector, extraordinary minister, or usher, but my knowledge was vague.  I do not know how I thought assisting at Mass “helped,” but I thought it did. I had a superficial understanding that the efficacy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was based on the priest standing in persona Christi and perfectly re-presenting Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross. But I still thought the laity were important in some way. Our family prioritized weekday and, obviously, Sunday Mass attendance. Attendance at weekday Masses is no mean feat when one is trying to get 8 kids Mass-ready in the middle of the homeschooling day and be on time! But we believed it was important, that the Sacraments were efficacious, and that the attendance of the laity was beneficial.

Then came COVID.

Public Masses were shut down, private Mass attendance was prohibited, and don’t even think about asking for Communion outside of Mass because that was forbidden too. For many, confession, baptism, and anointing of the sick were outlawed as well.  Our family and friends keenly felt the loss of Mass and the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, we lost the very thing we believed we could always count on, the presence of the Sacraments.

I felt the alarm of Mary Magdalen, “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him.”

As the quarantine, pause, shelter-in-place continued we watched our prior priest, who is both orthodox and reverent, live-stream his Masses. I wanted my young children to continue to watch Mass, especially since they knew and liked the priest. We were confident that he would celebrate each Mass beautifully and with great care. And yet every Mass, though offered with much love, was heartbreaking. Tears would flow week after week. We were starving watching another person, however deserving, feast.

Stay Home! Stay Safe!

The silence from many parishes was deafening. Offices were locked.  Some parishes chose neither phone calls nor emails; only a few infrequent announcements on the website reassured the laity that their spiritual fathers had not completely disappeared but had merely chosen inaccessibility.

Flatten the Curve!

I watched the news from other dioceses with a mix of sadness and disgust, trying to feel grateful for the Sacraments we retained in our diocese, but starving, nonetheless. In my lowest moments, I felt I had been duped into believing that Mass was important. I had believed in the efficacy of the Sacraments. I had imagined that the presence of the laity enhanced the worship of the Mass.  I had trusted that, despite their flaws, bishops and priests cared about saving our souls.  However, the complete shutdown of public Masses nearly across the world, caused me to question everything I thought I knew.

Wear your mask! Wash your hands!

Our family managed through the shutdown. We turned inward, deepening our prayer life, building our family culture further, and doing more spiritual reading. When Masses were restored (only 10 people! Obey the governor!), our family had to attend in shifts.  Despite this, we were overjoyed. However, returning was not what I expected. I had hoped for a moving return to public worship and beautiful reception of Our Lord in Holy Communion.  Returning was neither of these things.

Social Distancing!  6 feet apart!

Instead everyone is to wear a mask, hand sanitizer has replaced holy water, and blue tape is everywhere.  Bringing small children to Mass at the best of times can be a challenge. Making them wear masks and surrounding them with tape they cannot touch adds an additional level of challenge.  Returning meant watching the priest receive Our Lord during the Mass, while we waited until the end.  When we could receive Our Lord we were reminded, “Masks! Hand sanitizer!  And you who insist on receiving on the tongue to the back of the line!”  Most disturbing, I kept questioning whether it even mattered that I was there. I felt extraneous, save the request to drop our money in the basket by the door. In many places there was no explanation for the near-complete disappearance of the parish’s spiritual fathers and no regret expressed at being separated from the faithful.  Everyone was expected to simply pick up where we left off.

Stay Alert! Control the Virus!

Even now, I am experiencing a significant spiritual struggle in returning to Mass, both due to anger at the locked doors and abandonment of many priests, as well as the feeling that the presence of the laity is optional anyway.  One priest told his parish a few weeks ago at Sunday Mass that they do not even need an excuse to stay home.  All are dispensed and can just stay home if they prefer.  I understand that he was trying to assuage the consciences of those immunocompromised members of his parish who perhaps should stay home; however, it was painful to have the point driven home that the presence of the laity at Mass seemingly does not matter to him.

Intellectually I believe that the Sacraments are important for my salvation, but they were so easily dispensed with that part of me wonders whether they were ever necessary.  If the priest is the face of Christ to the laity and the priest appears ambivalent about the laity even being at Mass, it undermines the truth that God wants the laity there.  I know the importance of going to Mass, but it is belied by the behavior of those spiritual fathers who seem to have no opinion either way.  I believe it is vital for my salvation to go to Mass and receive the Sacraments, but it feels like I am the only person who thinks that. There is a struggle between what I know and what I see unfolding before me.

I labored to resolve this inner conflict.  Then a holy priest reminded me that the saints and angels are a part of the eternal Mass in Heaven.  Why should they be there?  The reality of the eternal sacrifice of the Mass is most perfectly present in Heaven, where the glorified Christ lives to make intercession for us and to bestow on us His glory.  The saints and angels do not add more, yet they are there because God wants them there.  They are there because God deserves their worship.  They owe Him their Love.  He is entitled to their Adoration.  I was reminded once again of the four ends of Mass:  Adoration, Thanksgiving, Atonement, and Petition.  While our lay participation in these things will never be as perfect as that of the priest who acts in persona Christi, God deserves our presence, nonetheless.  The laity does not assist in the “helpful” way I vaguely imagined; however, their prayerful attendance at Mass to worship Our Lord is important, nonetheless.

The shutdown of public Masses has revealed to me all of the wrong reasons I was going to Mass, whether it was to bring my sons to serve at the altar, to feel good about myself, to add some structure to our homeschool day, or simply for some quiet.  Now I can see the superficial reasons for what they are: so much straw.  I must go to Mass because I love Our Lord and He deserves my adoration and worship and for no other reason.  I bring nothing but my sins and can offer nothing but myself.  I cannot stay away because of anger or masks or ubiquitous blue tape.  I must put my ego aside and worship Our Lord who laid down His life for mine, while being thankful for this much-needed lesson in humility.

As for my anger and frustration after the shutdown of private Masses, I am praying for the Lord to work in my heart to forgive those who seemed to abandon the faithful, trusting that they did the best that they could given that this situation was unimaginable in the United States when 2020 began.  I wish our bishops had chosen differently.  I wish our priests had been able to minister to us the way many of them longed to.  But now I am better prepared should this happen again.

I have returned to Mass with a new appreciation for its availability.  I am profoundly grateful each time I am able to receive Holy Communion.  And yet I must hold the Sacraments loosely, should the Lord see fit to allow them to be taken away once again.  To prepare for such an eventuality, I must take more responsibility for my faith, further structuring my life around personal prayer, the Divine Office, spiritual reading, and the like.  I will certainly avail myself of the Sacraments as often as I am able, but I believe that the time is coming when the Sacraments will be even harder to come by.  I think COVID was a warning to us all.  Darker times are on the horizon and we must prepare for more significant trials to come.

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