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Catholic Rituals in a Time of Coronavirus

The first time I walked back into a church after months away due to the pandemic, the smell–a mix of wood polish, faded incense, and candle wax–hit me like a long-lost friend. As in many aspects of life, months of safe-at-home have helped me appreciate aspects of Mass that were invisible to me when I could go whenever I wanted.

As Catholic schools return to in-person instruction, it’s worth exploring with renewed awareness the qualities of Mass that are perhaps as subconscious as they are valuable. We can explore how to retain those qualities in the new context of COVID safety precautions, and they can help inform the prayer and liturgy experiences we celebrate if the ritual of whole-school Mass is not yet feasible.

Some of the qualities I’ve grown to appreciate:

Mass is communal. Even when everyone in the pews with you is a stranger, there is a subconscious connection that occurs well before we connect directly in the sign of peace. Now, that communal element isn’t always the holiest of experiences–like when my brother or sister and I would fuss at each other until a Mass part got everyone standing again, and my parents did the time-honored stage whisper or vigorous finger point–“here!”–and moved between the bickering parties.

But in all our flawed humanity, we are there, together. We are aware, even dimly, of the others praying around us. Parish priest Dexter Brewer reflected early in the pandemic that when giving a homily, he feels the energy from the congregation that creates a kind of wordless “back and forth,” and it finds its way into his homily. So the presence of others can matter for priests too.

Mass is embodied. To the frequent bemusement of our friends from some other Christian denominations, Catholics don’t just listen to Mass; we sit and stand and kneel. At minimum, these Catholic calisthenics can get bodies involved in Mass even when attentions wander. At their best, they mean that we are worshiping with our whole selves–soul, mind, and body. Postures and movement are parts of connecting the holy and the human in many religious traditions, as our Buddhist and Muslim friends can attest. Singing too is a way of embodying what we offer to God and ask of God in Mass as well.

Most significantly, of course, the central act of Mass–the consecration of the Eucharist–is an embodiment of God in our midst, the “source and summit” of Christian life.

Finally, Mass is intentional and ritualized. The stuff of everyday life–entering a space, talking, moving, eating–takes on new richness when it is ritualized. Even silence gets transformed. The intentionality of shared silence in a Mass turns what can be awkward outside of Church into something deeply peaceful.

Getting back to celebrating school Masses as soon as possible is yet another reason for continued collective effort to conquer the spread of the virus. But we do have an invitation in this moment to expand and explore the rich diversity of forms of worship and prayer. We posted about just some resources for prayer, particularly at home, back in the spring. And for centuries, Catholics–particularly consecrated religious sisters and brothers–have been engaged in a rich variety of liturgy and prayer in addition to the Mass that can be communal, embodied, intentional and ritualized–and adapted for school use.

St. Williams Catholic Church in Round Rock, Texas, for example, has powerful resources for doing guided Eucharistic meditation with young people. For centuries, Eucharistic processions have brought the central mystery of our faith to the streets and neighborhoods where daily life happens. In that tradition, reverently processing the Eucharist to our classrooms for periods of guided meditation could be a beautiful practice–and one that aligns with our efforts to have adults move from room to room rather than students, in order to limit the opportunities for virus transmission.

The Liturgy of the Hours is likewise adaptable. And walking meditations or rosaries could help manage at a safe and prayerful distance the natural wiggliness of children–or of adults, like the monks and nuns who have used cloister walks and labyrinths for centuries.

I visited a Catholic elementary school that prayed the Examen together over the intercom every afternoon before dismissal; while not as embodied as other forms of prayer, it was communal, intentional and ritualized beautifully.

Even listening to a brief musical reflection in the same way can take us out of the modes of communicating that can be more challenging these days and into something transformed. Here’s just one of my favorites from this summer–a version of “Ubi Caritas” from an unlikely space, made momentarily holy by its singers. And some of our teachers are already embracing that practice in simple ways that are well-tailored to asynchronous instruction, like Miss Villhard at St. Athanasius:

In times of scarcity and limitation, it can be harder to see the wealth of opportunities that remain. Thanks to Catholic tradition and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we have many ways to continue developing in our children the deeply satisfying practice of communal, embodied, intentional and ritualized worship–even now.