Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I am sure you have seen more and more people spending time outdoors these days. Our streets are full of cars; restaurants and stores are packed with customers; school playgrounds and parks are bustling with activities; big box stores like Home Depot and Costco are increasingly overcrowded. Everywhere we look, activity seems to have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Unfortunately, our church is still not as full as it used to be before COVID-19. The long pandemic has resulted in many faithful not attending Mass or choosing to attend it virtually due to health concerns. At the height of the pandemic, the bishops of the United States had granted the faithful a general dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, which was withdrawn at the end of June, 2021. Now that more people are vaccinated and going back to their favorite pre-pandemic routines, an important question should be on all our minds, “What about going back to church?”
“We welcome and encourage the faithful to return to full in-person participation of the Sunday Eucharist, the source and summit of our Catholic faith,” (Bishops’ Statement on Lifting the General Dispensation from the Obligation to Attend Mass, June 2021). The reality is that many faithful have become accustomed to watching the Mass online and no longer see a real need to come to church physically. “It’s a lot easier to watch the Mass from home without the hassle of getting all the kids ready and in the car on time” someone recently said. Another person agreed, “I’ve really enjoyed the live streaming. Nobody bothers me and I can pray alone by myself.”
As a pastor, I have been anxious about this situation since the pandemic. I worry about the possibility that many of our faithful would decide that a virtual participation suites them just fine. Like some in the congregation who are concerned about the empty pews, I ask these questions: Will people not realize that receiving the Body and Blood of Christ sacramentally is never on par with receiving Him spiritually? Will the decline in Mass attendance, which began as a health concern, become a permanent habit? Will healthy and able-bodied people continue attending virtually, or not at all, even after the pandemic is over? Since the state of the pandemic is still unclear, and Mass attendance here continues to ebb and flow, especially with respect to the Bilingual and English Masses, answering these questions remains difficult.
Certainly, it would be a shame if the decline of in-person Mass attendance was an outcome of the pandemic. While virtual Masses and spiritual communions were a wonderful way to bridge the gap, they do not represent the fullness of the Sacrament, which is essentially an encounter with the Lord in His family, the Church. As Catholics, we need to be together. The one thing about our Catholic faith is that it is deeply physical. It’s not some cloud or virtual religion. We literally receive our Lord and God in the proclamation of His Word and in Holy Communion. Therefore, coming in person is an essential part of our spiritual life. That is why the Church teaches that “Sunday, on which by apostolic tradition the paschal mystery is celebrated, must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation” (Can. 1246 §1, Code of Canon Law).
As a priest, I worry about those who are genuinely afraid, but I also strongly believe that it is now safe to attend in person and any health concern should no longer be an excuse. My mother, a Covid survivor, says, “we have to obey God’s commandment for our own good.” She also believes that “there is a palpable difference between watching the Mass on TV and being there in person, because part of being the body of Christ is being together.” Thus, the Church’s physical gathering is a visible expression of its spiritual nature; we believers are united by our faith in Christ Jesus, our Savior. To neglect, or forsake, assembling with other believers is to turn from the true nature of the Church and embrace a false substitute: the notion that Christianity is individualistic, rather than familial or communal.
In short, attending Mass is not only a safe but a healthy activity. If we are to grow spiritually, we need to be relationally present and engaged in one another’s lives. To anyone who wonders whether the “virtual Church” has now proven itself to be a preferred new normal, I believe the answer is pretty clear… it’s virtually impossible!
God’s blessings and see you in church!
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham