In the 10 years I spent as an RCIA director, one of the biggest challenges I faced was marshalling my diplomatic skills in response to magical thinking. Not from the catechumens, mind you, but from zealous sponsors like the one who stressed the heightened efficacy of engaging in a favorite devotion at a specific time or the woman who asserted we could say with confidence that the Blessed Virgin always wore blue.
In what I considered a great act of restraint for this outspoken cynic, I looked for ways to be respectful of people’s deeply held traditions while ensuring that the catechumens didn’t leave thinking they were required to engage with the specific sacramentals and devotions cited by their sponsors as part of their newfound life as Catholics. It was a fruitful exercise for me because I had to remind myself that I had no right to judge others’ engagement with things that are not provable but don’t harm anyone by belief in them.
The arrival of COVID-19, however, has brought with it a far more serious—and dangerous—kind of magical thinking, and it comes from those who think we can proceed as we always have when it comes to liturgy.
Requests to compromise for the safety of others are seen by some as an attack on religious freedom, a thought process that reveals a selfishness antithetical to the very nature of the communal life of the church.
No sooner had my own archdiocese taken to social media with the news that parishes could opt to re-open—an announcement accompanied by an infographic about the protocols people were urged to take—then the pile-on began.
“Forcing masks on the population and the faithful especially is a sign of oppression of God’s people,” one woman responded.
The need to minimize the risk related to returning to church is clear. Cases abound of churchgoers from various denominations becoming infected after attending services. In Germany, for example, 107 people tested positive who attended a service in a church in Frankfurt after it reopened in May, even though new government rules called for social distancing and hygiene measures.
While there is still so much we do not know about COVID-19, numerous studies suggest that wearing a mask, in tandem with hand washing and social distancing, is a key element of preventing the spread of the disease.
Yet the naysayers persist. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading infectious disease experts in the world, urged churches to use “common sense,” an approach he says includes delaying the resumption of Communion, he, too, was greeted with a barrage of criticism, including one twitter commenter who asserted, “Shame on him for saying Catholics should not go to Holy Communion.” One person went so far as to suggest he was in the hands of Satan. Apparently the problems doesn’t reside only with the laity. Pope Francis has weighed in, citing the “adolescent resistance” of some priests who have been reluctant to put safety measures in place to protect churchgoers.
Have church-going Catholics suffered from the loss of access to sacraments during the pandemic, and especially during the Lenten and Easter seasons? Absolutely. There is a deep hunger for Eucharist that spiritual communion and online masses can’t always fill. The pandemic has called on all of us to sacrifice, and all of us have suffered in a variety of ways because of the privation. For a significant number of Catholics, and particularly older ones, this will be the first time they have missed Mass.
But these strange times offer us a chance to engage with our faith in a renewed way as members of the Body of Christ, and that includes looking out for each other. It’s a safe guess that some of the first back to church will be older Catholics whose age makes them particularly vulnerable to illness. Once in the pews, Mass ceases to become an individual experience in front of a computer screen in the safety of home, but, as it was always intended to be, the communal experience of the faithful.
It is ironic that in the rush to get back to Mass, some see this as an individual action—my right to receive communion on the tongue, my right to go maskless, my right to receive the sacrament of reconciliation in a confessional—risking compromising the safety of other people. This includes priests, many of whom, as elderly men, are themselves at risk of becoming ill.
There is a form of magical thinking happening that says faith trumps science in terms of determining how to proceed, but we have to trust pastors, in consultation with those who are on the front lines, to ponder all the variables as the great reopen begins, with priests truly acting as shepherds. My desire to get back to Mass cannot come before the safety of others, the people in my faith community.
We all need ignore the ridiculous conspiracy theories—Dr. Fauci trying to betray the church or public health regulations being a plot against religious life—and think about what we are doing for each other. In our desire to get back to the communion line, for example, have we thought about the additional cleaning costs parishes face, or the vulnerability of the volunteers whose selflessness is allowing people to return? Not one of us can say with confidence that we are not at risk of infecting others. If there are ways to minimize the risk, let’s take those steps. And if some locations cannot yet open with confidence, then the wait will just have to drag on.
My hometown of Toronto was one of the worst hit during the SARS epidemic of 2003. At that time, holy water fonts were drained, and the kiss of peace was turned into a polite nod or smile, a touchless acknowledgement. We managed.
SARS brought with it a shadow of the destruction that COVID-19 has, and with the apparent risk of a second wave later this year, we need to be thinking ahead to ensure we keep others safe, for whatsoever we do for the least of our sisters and brothers, we do for the risen Christ. Both science and faith reveal that to me. As the hashtag reads, we really are all in this together.
Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.