Getting Back to Sunday Mass in the Age of COVID

Getting Back to Sunday Mass in the Age of COVID May 18, 2021


Things are slowly inching back to normal after a year of horror.

Here in Ohio, the governor is going to lift the mask regulations in June, and along with that lifting comes the grand re-opening of churches: the dispensation for Sunday Mass will be lifted by the bishops in Ohio very soon.

And this is good, because Mass is very important. I’ve been going back to Mass in person most weeks since a little before Easter, and I’m especially glad to go back to Mass now that I’m fully vaccinated. I’ve missed the Eucharist more than I can say. It’s a huge relief to not just pray at home on Sunday anymore. But it’s more important than ever now, to look at what the rules for who should be going to Mass really are, and what obligations we have to safeguard our neighbor’s health.

I’m thankful that the priest who said Mass this past Sunday gave a pretty good reminder of how the Sunday Mass obligation works: you still should stay home if you’re sick, if you’re caring for somebody sick, or if there’s danger involved in getting to Mass. That’s always been the rule. Good old Catholic guilt can make us forget it, but that’s the rule. If you have a chronic illness like me and are in the middle of a terrible flare, you’re not required to go to Mass. You’re not wrong if you decided to get out your cane and sit painfully in the back pew because you choose to, of course, and people who are annoyed at you for limping in the Communion line can deal with it, but you’re not required. If you’re caring for a sick relative and can’t get away, you don’t have to try. If you have a bad cold, you should stay home from Mass so that the rest of the congregation won’t have a bad cold the next week. If your five-year-old has an active case of Pink Eye, your whole family should stay home instead of getting Pink Eye germs all over the pews for other people to pick up. If there is a blizzard or an air raid, or if you’re immunocompromised and could die from some irresponsible person bringing a sick child to Mass, or if there’s other serious danger, you should stay home from Mass. That’s nothing new. That’s always been the rule.

And guess what? COVID-19 is still dangerous. Six hundred thousand people in America alone have died of COVID and people are still dying of it. It’s still communicable. By the grace of God, in America right now, things are quieting down and not as many people are dying of COVID. We have some hope that it will become a nuisance instead of a catastrophe if things keep getting better. But COVID-19 is not harmless. You are allowed to stay home from Sunday Mass if you are at risk of a dangerous illness like COVID-19, if you’re immunocompromised, if there’s been a big outbreak of a new strain in your area, if you have reason to believe that people who have been exposed to COVID-19 are bringing their germy children to Mass. That’s a legitimate excuse.

And if you, personally, are not afraid of COVID-19 but have reason to believe you’ve been exposed to it and might be a carrier, you should stay home from Mass for two weeks until you’re sure you’re not going to breathe it on anybody else. You should keep your family home as well– just as you were supposed to be doing on Sundays in the beforetime when one of your kids had pink eye or had been exposed to chicken pox.

Because reckless disregard for your neighbor’s health and safety is a sin against the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

That’s not new; it’s always been that way. As Catholics we know that we sin when we disregard other people’s safety and act just as we please when we might hurt them. We sin gravely if we disregard their safety gravely enough. Grave matter, under the right conditions, is mortal sin. That’s why the Catechism, in paragraph 2290, declares drunk driving gravely sinful. You’re not allowed to be reckless with other people’s health and safety. If you don’t have consideration for your neighbor, you sin.

So, how can you be considerate for your neighbor at Mass, as we’re all going back? Well, you can start following the rules about staying home if you weren’t before. If up until 2020, you were the kind of person whose good old fashioned Catholic guilt led you to drag your whole family to Mass even when you or a family member had a miserable cold, you can repent, pray for the grace to be free of that guilt, seek spiritual direction or counseling if you need it, and start staying home when you’re sick. That will help. If you think you’re pretty safe but there’s still a concern that you might breathe germs on people, you can keep wearing your mask. Just because masks aren’t required doesn’t mean you have to stop wearing them. If Old Mrs. Pellegrino in the front pew can keep wearing her mantilla even though women’s headcoverings at Mass haven’t been mandatory for decades, you can keep wearing your mask.

And, of course, you can get vaccinated. In fact, you really ought to.

No, the vaccines aren’t 100% effective in preventing COVID, but they are pretty darn effective. And every vaccinated person makes it that much less likely that COVID will spread. My friend who is an immunologist used a great metaphor to explain how. He compared it to back in the 80s when almost all phones were a land line. If one telephone pole got knocked down, that house wouldn’t be able to communicate on the phone, but the rest of the city would be fine. If several telephone poles got knocked down, a lot more houses would not be able to communicate. And if a critical mass of telephone poles got knocked down, the whole city would be effectively unable to communicate, even if a few poles were still standing. The more vaccinated people in a population, the more likely it is that COVID can’t communicate from one person’s body to another.

And I know that there’s been a lot of scaremongering in popular Catholic circles about whether those vaccines are safe, effective or even morally licit. But I promise they’re safe and effective for most people and morally licit for everyone. If you don’t believe what I’ve written on the topic, you can look at what Father Schneider has written. You are not committing a sin by getting the shot. In fact, you are being charitable to your neighbor. You’re obeying the fifth commandment by helping your neighbor stay healthy. Everyone who is medically able should get their vaccine as soon as possible.

The Mass is an unspeakably beautiful gift. So is the physical health of ourselves and our neighbor. Our Church teaches us to respect and honor both, so let’s make sure we’re doing that in the coming weeks.


Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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