As restrictions ease, we are thankfulbut remain patient
After these difficult months of the pandemic, I’m very excited to welcome you back to Mass, starting last weekend on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, a special day in the life of the Church when we give thanks for the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
I welcome very much the governor’s comments a couple of weeks ago easing some of the COVID-19 protocols and restrictions. Pastors are very happy that we are able to start to open up the pews, and it’s nice to see so many people back in church over the past few weeks. That number is growing. At St. Joseph Cathedral, I’m seeing the return of visitors as well as parishioners, which is all really very good and very encouraging. It is a reminder that those who to go to Mass really do take it seriously.
As we hope you know, the bishops of Ohio decided that the general obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (including the Saturday/Vigil Mass) will be reinstated this weekend.
The Church has always taught that those who are sick, those for whom it would be dangerous to their health (or to someone in their care) and those with significant concerns or anxieties for their health or that of their families have legitimate reasons for missing Mass and therefore are exempt (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2181).
If you have questions or concerns, reach out to your pastor or to a priest and talk it out. Another consideration is that the threshold for being sick is a little lower. We have to be concerned for other people’s health and even for other people’s confidence and comfort. We have to recognize somebody might not be comfortable sitting in front of somebody who’s coughing. That’s where the charity comes in, and Christian charity has to guide us. St. Paul speaks about being all things to all people, and we don’t want to put unnecessary burdens on others.
At this point, I want to communicate my gratitude to people for all of the flexibility and patience that they’ve shown and for their kindness and generosity while keeping one another safe. In that spirit, one of the things you’ll hear me saying now is that Christian charity has to be our overarching guide going forward. That’s been true for these past months, and people have shown it.
And as we come back, things are not going to be easy all the time, and we have to remember that people are approaching this from a lot of different angles and a lot of different experiences. Some people have had to deal with COVID-19 in a very painful way. Let us never lose sight of those who have died and those who mourn. Others continue to suffer with the illness and its effects. Still others have very legitimate fears, so this is going to take a lot of patience and a lot of Christian charity.
We are going to try to provide whatever guidance we can to your parishes from the diocesan level, but we also have to recognize that one church is very different from another in terms of capacity and the number of people we need to fit in the church for Mass. So some churches, if they have the room, might leave sections with distancing. Others might not have that luxury. We can’t do everything that everybody wants us to do, but we’ve tried to be attentive to the needs of a broad base of people.
We’ve already started to reduce the spacing so that we could accommodate more people based on the guidelines that are given to us. Honestly, I was just hoping for the day that we could increase the seating capacity, even if it meant wearing the masks for a little while longer. But, happily, the current guidance from the CDC changed on the masks more quickly, lifting yet another burden. I’m just very glad. Enlarging our capacity was my first priority. We want to be welcoming, and so that was my biggest concern that we could fit everybody making everybody feel totally welcome in church.
While we might not need to wear masks, I think I will encourage parishes to have them available so that individuals can choose to wear one if they feel vulnerable and it makes them feel more comfortable. I know that if I’m with somebody who’s not comfortable and I have a mask, I will wear it.
I am looking to restore the holy water back in the church. We will encourage pastors to change that out regularly so that people who choose to use it may. Hand sanitizer is readily available now, and people are carrying it around.
We are not going to return to communion in both species right away. We still don’t have the full complement of people who are able to serve in the different functions as extraordinary ministers. The sign of peace will likely be restored but with just a gesture or a verbal greeting.
For parents with children who will not be vaccinated, we’re following the conventions of the medical experts. Right now, the vaccines are available at certain ages, but the younger ages aren’t considered to be as vulnerable. So parents will make decisions about what they’re going to do with younger children. You don’t need a dispensation if you’re really concerned about your child’s health and don’t bring him or her to Mass, but we need to keep in mind that Sundays are still the Lord’s day. Many of our parishes will continue to livestream so that the faithful can stay connected.
In terms of vaccine requirements, I would simply encourage people to get the vaccine. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are readily available and do not have moral objections. Again, Christian charity has to guide us so that if somebody has a principled reason not to be vaccinated, we respect that.
I’ll never be able to say enough to thank the pastors for their goodness and solidarity as they worked together in a beautiful spirit of collaboration during this crisis. They want to serve God and His people, and they’ve shown tremendous patience and flexibility, extraordinary leadership and generosity. Many of our priests went through training to respond to COVID calls, and many of them can tell you stories about going to be with people at the end of life and offering the sacraments. They’ve shown tremendous courage.
Our priests and parishes have also been very creative with livestreaming and trying to stay in touch with parishioners, helping them keep the Lord’s day holy and helping people to stay connected to their parish. And now they’re working hard to keep parishes clean and safe and to welcome people back and try to make it so the people feel confident they have an environment that’s safe. And I would say the same for many of the people who work in our schools, social service agencies and in the hospitals.
I know there are people who believe we did too much and other people who said we did too little during the pandemic. I heard from people, and I respect that. I want to make sure that I’m hearing from people. But overwhelmingly people have just been so cooperative, and they’ve had a real sense of looking after their neighbor, loving their neighbor, trying to make sure their neighbor was safe while giving glory and honor to God.
At the beginning of last March, I never dreamed that I would be in a position of having to say that we’re not celebrating Mass publicly. And, in fact, I’ll be honest, this was a lesson in humility for me because, not very long before, I’d seen this happening in other parts of the world, and I was somewhat critical. I never dreamed we’d have to do it, and it probably was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a priest.
Yet the case that was made was just so overwhelming. All we knew then was that this was a very highly communicable disease. In the course of a year, we’ve learned a lot about how it spreads, how it doesn’t. But that wasn’t known then, and so any large gathering was risky. The prevailing wisdom was that we didn’t want to overwhelm the hospitals.
They talked about flattening the curve so that we wouldn’t have a steep rise, and suddenly we couldn’t handle the cases. I think there was a hope among a lot of people, and myself included, that doing this for a couple of weeks, it would run its course sort of like a flu season. We realize that was not the case. But looking back, as hard as it was and as much as I’ll always regret that it had to be done, I am convinced it was the right thing to do at the time.
During the time that we were shut down, I was impressed with how our parishes adapted by using technology, putting cameras in place for livestreaming and pastors sending weekly messages to parishioners and calling them to stay in touch. Different parishes and different groups had weekly rosaries by Zoom, and I got to jump in on a couple of those. It was a way of checking in on one another and being together to pray.
Many people have been returning to Mass over the past few months who are just so thankful to be back. I hope it has deepened our appreciation for the sacraments and given us a greater awareness of those who don’t have regular access to the Eucharist. The experience of being “locked in at home” can give us a greater sense of solidarity with people who are locked into refugee camps suffering violence. The experience of isolation reminds us of people who are homebound or alone and feel a great sense of isolation. A greater attentiveness to the plights of so many people near and far and a sense of solidarity with those who suffer can be something we learn from this whole experience.
It’s hoped that our faith will be rejuvenated and we better understand the gifts that we have through our relationship with God and how He gives us those gifts through the sacraments of the Church. At the same time, we might have become more aware of the futility of so many things on which we depend and the illusion that we can satisfy all of our own needs with possessions and prestige. Gathering together this weekend, we do so with a profound sense of gratitude as we call upon the Lord in our need.
+ Most Reverend Robert J. Brennan
Bishop of Columbus