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Providing for Worship

One feature of the Eucharist is its deceptive simplicity. In form, matter, and personnel, it seems that the Mass requires little. Liturgists have identified this aspect of the Roman Rite in a positive light as “noble simplicity”. The simple furnishings required:  an altar, a chair, and ambo. The simple proclamation of the word. Very ordinary and simple offerings:  bread and wine. One priest to offer the sacrifice. The Church assumes that some other person be present as a congregant to assume the role of the people and or perform other ministries such as reading or sing the chants of the mass. Nevertheless, generations of priests have said private masses on their own without another person present. A custom that is not necessarily encouraged or promoted, but still common as many priests say a private mass without another soul present, especially those who may be retired, on vacation, or on a day off.

The story of Abraham entertaining angels as told in Genesis 3 firmly places hospitality as a foundational virtue of our faith. Image from the Clevland Museum of Art, Francesco Guardi – Abraham Welcoming the Three Angels

During the lock down in our Diocese, Bishop McKnight was very clear that he expected the mass to be continually offered in the Church of a parish. Even while the strictest of social distancing was practiced—precluding even the few present from receiving communion—Bishop McKnight allowed that others be present to assist at the mass to read and respond to the prayers. I found it quite extraordinary that the Mass the simplicity of the Mass allowed us to continue to offer the Eucharist without the normal support structure dedicated to the worthy and appropriate celebration of the sacrament.

To be truthful, the simplicity of the Mass has led priests and congregations to become on occasions unengaged in the proper celebration the Lord’s Work requires. Laxity and minimalism have donned the guise of simplicity and parred away at the requirements for the valid celebration of the Mass. Some of these vices have continued to haunt us. That so many folks leave after receiving communion harkens back to the time when the faithful were told that to fulfill your obligation to attend Mass, you had to be present from the reading of the Gospel through the priest’s communion.

So the minimum became permission. And the permission became custom. And the custom became a habit which outlived its original intention. There were some strange practices as a result. In many churches, communion was given out from the tabernacle before early morning mass, and the workers were able to leave as soon as the priest received communion to make it on time to work.

We are able to gather again as God’s people. And yet things are different, and must remain so as long as the pandemic continues to run its course. Folks have to work through a problem. The obligation to attend Mass has been lifted. And now comes the real test of faith. The people are free to attend or not attend and have a good conscience. People may feel relieved and experience this as “great, now I don’t have to go to mass.” That’s understandable. Who of us would feel guilty about missing school when it is called off for a snow day?

Because the risk of severe illness is so varied among the population, there is a great disparity in folks’ reactions. Many folks give no thought to getting infected or spreading the disease. That certainly is not the usual sign of an informed conscience. Some folks make the error of putting their own individual free choice above the golden rule—do no harm to others which you would have done to you. A nurse I know responds to folks who say they don’t have to wear a mask around others,  Ok, next time you are in for surgery, I will forgo wearing my mask since you don’t think it is a harm to you.”

Going deeper, the bigger dynamic is for the faithful who miss being present at Mass. It has been a great hardship, to fast from the Eucharist, the Bread of Life. I have prayed constantly for guidance, especially in putting into practice the recommendations from the CDC and other competent health officials. Some things seems to arbitrary, especially when you are just a little part of a bigger statistic. Take the moving of the goalpost from 60 to 65 as the cutoff for a recommendation to avoid public places as much as possible. That recommendation can feel like a rejection, especially during this time of crisis. Folks would gladly participate, assuming the risks, but are asked to continue to bear the hardship of separation from something they love so much. [Edit: CDC guidelines updated on 6-25-2020 remove the specific age reference and simply speak of increasing risk as one ages. Increased age is one factor of risk and accompanying other conditions can increase risk. It seems that we all have a little more leeway in either direction by which to make our assessments.]

We are figuring this all out as we go along. The more people you have together, the higher is the risk of contagion. That is a basic fact. We can lessen the risk of infecting others and being infected by the practices we engage in. Remember that having the public at all at mass is a risk. I am assuming a risk by being in the same room with so many people I do not know. I have to trust that everyone is keeping best practices by avoiding contagion and is monitoring their symptoms. I see evidence that this trust might not be merited when I read about the many symptomatic people who go out in public with no regard for the health of others.

This leads me to my final points. It is hard to ask for volunteers at this time. In good conscience, I can’t ask anything of people that I am not willing to risk myself. And that is what I do every time I celebrate Mass. Any minister on the altar increases the risk of spreading the virus. That is why we have minimized the number of people who are doing any of the ministries at the altar, and also limiting their interaction. It is discouraging not to have an altar server assist at Mass. We allow for them to do some minimal activities and still feel like they are serving. The Deacons feel it particularly strongly. They feel their place is right next to me, always there to help. To remain separated even in the sanctuary is awkward and uncomfortable. They long to resume their place at Mass, especially in the distribution of Holy Communion, something that because of the age classifications of the CDC is not the best practice at this time.

On the recommendation of the parish staff and the Worship Commission I myself have refrained from giving out Holy Communion. Again, I would be happy to take the risk, but they don’t think my getting sick would be a good idea for anyone else. Then no one would have the Mass. It’s not a pleasant experience. I find so much joy in distributing Holy Communion. It is when I see the people I shepherd face to face, and I miss them!

So we need people now to celebrate the Mass. Not because of any inherent need of the Roman Rite, but because circumstances at this time require us to do our best to keep people healthy even as offer our worship to God. We especially need people who can usher. This is an essential duty of hospitality, but also a real service to the common good. By having such a clear protocol for entering church, finding a place, going to communion and exiting Church, we can assist each other in staying healthy. The ushers make an uncomfortable and difficult situation easier for all of us. It is a sacrifice of time, and honestly it is an increased risk. I can’t say that anyone should usher. All I can say is that there is a need if we are to continue to offer the mass publicly.

Next Sunday is the 4th of July Weekend. Typically we might have a thousand people at mass at the 10:00 AM on that Sunday after 4th of July. We can’t accommodate that many at this time and we don’t expect that many. But we do anticipate more people attending. Therefore we are having an 8:00 AM Mass on Sunday morning, July 5. I would recommend that parishioners attend that mass or the Saturday evening mass which has yet reached capacity these past weeks, or the 8:00 AM Sunday Mass. We need at least 18 people to volunteer for those masses next weekend, six at each mass. Mary Wagemann, who works in the office and does the complicated job of ministry scheduling, has been finding it difficult to fill all the ministry roles at mass. Please contact her at the parish office email or parish phone number 365-2241 to let her know you can assist.

In the end, I see the special need for more engaged ushers as an answer to my prayers. I have always thought we could do so much more in welcoming people to Church, assisting them during Mass, and guiding them on the way out. We have had some improvement with the ministry of greeter who provide a cheerful welcome to Church. But once past the door, folks usually are left on their own, unless things get drastic and there are only a few seats left. Bishop McKnight has actually decreed that there be ushers at every mass. This time of pandemic has demonstrated that the role of an usher must be an essential ministry at every mass. We are more concerned than ever about health, safety, and security at public gatherings. Even when we are all in the best of health. there will be those who aren’t and might need our assistance, or simply be someone new and unfamiliar and could use a friendly face. Ushers can be seen as our guardian angels, showing everyone we do not take anyone’s welfare for granted.