If They Don’t Come Back to Mass…

If They Don’t Come Back to Mass… May 24, 2021

It has been about fifteen months since the first COVID-19 death in America. About fourteen since the lockdown began last March. Fourteen months ago, churches all over the country shut down public Masses, non-essential businesses closed, and we went home to shelter in place.

Now, mostly thanks to vaccination, we seem to be pulling through. New cases and death rates are way down in America. Everything’s opening up. Catholic dioceses who still had a dispensation from the Sunday obligation in place are lifting that dispensation.

I see a lot of people fretting that many Catholics simply won’t come back to church– that the sizes of parishes all over the country are going to collapse and shrink, due to everything that happened in 2020. And I share their worry. I think the number of regular churchgoing Catholics in America is about to collapse like a popped balloon, and I think the number of new converts and people expressing interest in Catholicism is going to go with it. And that makes me very sad– but frankly, we’ve earned it. We haven’t done what’s ours to do, and now we’re stuck.

Think of what would have happened if every Catholic had spent all of 2020 living the Gospel to the hilt.

I know that some did, and I am thankful and blessed for your example. But what if everybody had?

What if, instead of making a stink over mask regulations, Catholics had been the ones to carefully observe the rules out of respect for our neighbors? What if we were known for our extra cautious respect for other people’s safety now, because of the way we’d behaved? I have Orthodox Jewish friends who were joyfully matching colorful masks to their tichels, inventing mask clips to attach the mask to their headcoverings,  and sharing transcripts of the prayer they whispered thanking God for the commandment to safeguard their neighbors’ health whenever they put the mask on. I didn’t see a similar example from the Catholic crowd.

What if every church that had to close public liturgies for a time had taken all the money they were going to use for their ruined parish picnic and parish Christmas party and all the other parish get-togethers, and spent it on supplies, and then set up a table outside the church doors with socially distant grab-and-go lunches for all the recently unemployed people? What if they’d coordinated with other parishes in the area so that each parish passed out food on a different day, so people would know there was a Catholic church that was going to feed them in this city every day of the week? Some Catholics rose to the occasion and did things like that, and they’re commendable, but a lot of Catholics didn’t. And I especially did not see a lot of parishes rising to the occasion. I saw individuals stuck doing it on their own.

What if we’d then universally turned that disappointment about missed liturgies and people hungry for the sacraments into action and carefully organized socially distant outdoor Masses in the park, and parking lot drive-up confessions, and parking lot Masses where we could listen to the liturgy on the radio while watching from a distance and then receive Communion distributed through each car window? Many parishes did that. Some tackled this challenge like experts. Over in Pennsylvania a stone’s throw from me, they seemed to have a really good system set up almost instantly. But many others whined that they were being persecuted and refused to innovate in any way. It was never going to be easy, but lots of us were left without the sacraments for a lot longer than we had to be as a result.

What if all pastors had called around their parishioners to ask how they were doing, listened empathetically about how difficult it was, and asked what they could do to help? What if they’d organized teams of the parishioners the least high risk to drive and pick up groceries and prescriptions for more at-risk parishioners, so the most in danger could stay home? What if they’d also organized teams of people to get on Zoom and remotely help tutor all the brand new homeschoolers? Imagine if people stuck in trouble with no one to help them had looked at how efficiently Catholic parishes were helping one another, and gone to them to ask for assistance, and we’d helped them as we’d helped our own. Some did and that’s great. Many didn’t.  And this isn’t all the pastor’s fault, mind you. A pastor can only do so much without a big group of helpful parishioners he knows he can rely on to help. I’m not glaring at pastors anymore than I’m glaring at the whole congregation together.

What if every Catholic who had to cancel a vacation or a wedding had taken the money they’d saved for it and donated it to a Catholic Worker House or other organization that helps the local poor?

What if the picket sign held by the priest in this photo that went viral had said something other than “IF YOU CAN GO GROCERY SHOPPING YOU CAN COME TO MASS?” What if he’d gone viral for a sign saying “IF YOU CANNOT AFFORD GROCERIES, CALL XYZ AND SAINT PATRICK’S CATHOLIC CHURCH WILL DELIVER YOU A FOOD BOX FOR FREE, JESUS LOVES YOU?”

What if, when the murder of George Floyd sparked the largest civil rights protest in the history of the world, we’d risen to the occasion? I know some of us did. But what if every Catholic had done something? What if Black Catholics always found themselves supported by Catholics of all races instead of on their own? What if every Catholic who found they disagreed with enough of the Black Lives Matter organization’s platform that they didn’t want to carry that particular sign or wear that particular t-shirt, had just made one of their own saying “Racism is a sin” or “Racism is not pro-life!” or other things they could wholly agree with, and shown their support? What if mostly white parishes had gone together to quietly shield Black protesters at the marches, so they would be safer to make their voices heard, or offered to host rallies in their own parking lots where the police would be less likely to make trouble? What if there were lots of historic photos of priests in Roman collars and religious in full habits, of all races, marching in solidarity with Black people in 2020? What if we’d all raised the most enormous stink imaginable when EWTN fired Gloria Purvis, so Catholics were famous for the backlash against EWTN?

If Catholics had come out of 2020 with that reputation, can you imagine the evangelizing we’d be doing now?

Do you think we’d be afraid that people wouldn’t come back to Mass?

I think we’d be packing our churches like sardines and then propping open the doors to put the overflow in the parking lot. We’d need new buildings to accommodate all the people who wanted to hear what we had to say about the Gospel– because they’d seen us living the Gospel in the most difficult circumstances.

That’s what the Gospel is. It’s something you preach by living it. And I feel that we’ve largely failed.

If people don’t come to Mass, we’ve earned that.

And that’s the saddest thing I could possibly say.




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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