Any other year, millions would be looking forward to attending mass on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. Whether regular church-goers or Chreasters (those who attend on Christmas and Easter), all would be welcomed. Cathedrals and more modest churches would be decorated with trees and wreaths, the altars filled with red, white, and pink poinsettias. Nativities would be displayed, children, in particular, wide-eyed looking at the scene before them.
Christmas 2020 will be different. Many churches will be open, although in some places the numbers will be restricted by local or state mandates. Safety precautions would include masks and social distancing. Singing would be limited to a cantor on the altar. Communion must be taken in the hand, a mask worn before and after receiving. At the end of each mass, workers would sanitize the pews, hopefully making the environment a little safer for the next group of worshipers.
Despite these precautions, many will stay away, the threat of contracting the virus too great. I’m a practicing Catholic. (Yes, I know it’s tough. You can read about my struggle here.) I rarely miss attending mass, in fact, I often attend more than once a week. But I haven’t been inside a Catholic Church to attend mass since March when the pandemic truly hit. The Archdioceses in many areas issued a dispensation for attending mass, choosing safety over in-person worship. Fortunately, I have been able to attend mass online. Not being able to receive communion for months has been difficult, but I can honestly say that attending mass virtually has been a deeply spiritual experience. There are no distractions. No children crying, no late arrivals, no one coughing. The music has been awe-inspiring. And the homilies thoughtful and comforting.
The power of prayer is that it can happen anywhere. You don’t need to be at mass. Or celebrating the high holy days in a synagogue. Or in a mosque. If you believe in an omnipresent God, then you believe that he is everywhere. You don’t need to have five bars on your cellphone to make that connection. And you don’t need WiFi or high speed internet. Your message will get through.
I’ve had some discussions with friends who were upset that in-person worship was restricted in New York under Governor Andrew Cuomo. In areas where infection rates of the coronavirus were rising, Cuomo had imposed 10 to 25-person limits on gatherings. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two New York synagogues had challenged Cuomo’s rule and the matter found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. With the addition of Amy Coney Barrett, the court now has a conservative majority, so it was no surprise that they ruled against Cuomo.
A bishop from Brooklyn, explaining the Catholic diocese’s stand, pointed out that some churches are large enough to accommodate more than 10 or 25 people and that the churches have been observing health guidelines. That’s certainly true, but some places of worship are more diligent than others. For Catholics, one of the guidelines, taking the communion wafer in the hand rather than having the priest place it on the tongue, was continually ignored during one online mass I watched. Imagine being the person next in line after the priest has placed his fingers on someone’s lips and tongue.
The newly installed Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, sued the city for the 50-person cap placed on religious services. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, he explained that “the right of the faithful to gather for religious services” should be considered an “essential” activity, just like shopping. On December 16, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser eased the 50-person cap. Cardinal Gregory did not detail in his op-ed what precautions would be taken by churches that will open their doors for holiday services.
I know some people who have been attending in-person services during the pandemic. They tell me their houses of worship have been diligent in adhering to safety precautions. They feel safe and believe being able to pray in person has been a lifeline.
I have not found a church near me where I would feel safe. That time will come, I know. Like so many, I am suffering from covid fatigue. I want my life back, and that includes being able to attend religious services. But I want to celebrate holidays in 2021, not missing any of my relatives and friends. So until that time, I will stay safe and pray wherever I can.