The coverage of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is beginning to bring to Catholic media the question of whether Catholics are truly bound under pain of mortal sin to return to public Mass if their own reading of public health factors and conditions are more serious than the reading of a local bishop, the corollary issue being whether a bishop can declare individuals in grave, hell-deserving sin on September 20 when he did not condemn the absence from Mass on September 13 as equally sinful Trust me, you will be asked this question or, just as likely, forced to describe Church discipline by anyone who depends on you for “the Catholic straight dope.” I don’t normally post from the news service Life Site because of its sometimes too literal interpretations of Catholic life, but I was intrigued by LS columnist Phil Lawler’s critique of the way the American bishops have pastorally managed sacraments and closings during the Covid-19 first wave. Lawler believes that the Covid closings and dispensations—in the fashion they were executed—have cost bishops a good deal of authority. I told my wife in March that people—particularly parents—will decide when to resume church and public life, and not one minute sooner, despite what our bishop or governor might say.
Lawler makes a particularly good point about the exercise of authority. On the question of when to return to common Eucharistic worship on Sundays. He writes “the individual must answer that question for himself. His answer will depend on his particular circumstances: his age, his overall health, the possible risks of exposure to new disease. The pastor cannot come take his temperature and his medical history. The individual must trust his own judgment.” Catholics presumably read newspapers or their on-line equivalent and/or watch local news. If they read The New York Times this morning [September 22] which provides an up-to-the minute national tally of cases and trends, they might have noticed Wisconsin’s third place showing in the last fourteen-day “fastest spiking of the virus” derby. Evidently the Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, reads “The Grey Lady,” for he did not reimpose the obligation of Mass. [By the way, that NYT database is free, as I understand it, and you can have it emailed to your home.]
I have to say that the process of deciding when it was safe for me and my wife to return to public Masses was not by any stretch anguishing, but we did think about it critically. We are both well into the “precondition of age” category used in risk management for Corona though with few if any other preconditions. Florida locked down by state order in mid-March, but my parish offered the livestream Mass and the Triduum via YouTube, and we attended from home for a while. I believe it was late May when my parish reopened for offering public Sunday Masses, and weekday Masses soon thereafter, using a computer reservation system for the limited seats on the weekend. We determined during the summer that we would be safe attending the Thursday noon Mass live, as very few people attend that Mass.
Florida, as you might remember, was the heart of the “summer spike” with ten to fifteen thousand new cases per day in our state, but as July moved into September and our daily state numbers now sit in the two to three thousand range, we mutually decided to attend a weekend Mass to gauge the safety against our standards. For about a month now we have been attending our Sunday evening “Life Teen” Mass, though evidently some of our senior friends and fellow parishioners also feel safe at this lightly attended Mass, and I got to thinking that the “Life Teen” Mass might acquire a new nickname shortly. I think that collectively our conscience decision circled round our personal Catholic upbringing and understanding of the importance of the weekly Eucharist, our sense that going to Mass together is an important part of our marital common life, and that my wife’s high visibility as the parish school’s founding principal has some sort of bell weather influence on others thinking of returning. In addition, on a more practical note, the University of Central Florida reopened and my wife needed to return to her UCF supervisory role of student teachers at a variety of neighboring public schools, where admittedly some risk is involved [though the public school protocols seem to be holding up quite well, albeit with a bit of anxiety.] We agreed that attending the Eucharist on Sunday deserved the same level of faith-driven risk taking that teachers take on in their work environment.
My own personal reflections on returning to Mass ran in a different direction. Strange as it may seem, I deeply enjoyed the break from the Sunday live attendance for a time. For all my adult life I had attended and/or pastored small parishes—seating several hundred—so adjusting to an affluent mega-parish was hard. Our church is situated in a wealthy suburb north of Orlando, and in all my years there we have never had a sermon that might “afflict the comforted,” as someone put it. Actually, I am not criticizing the preaching; it is the best product to be expected in the present-day atmosphere of the unholy marriage of politics, culture wars, and ultratraditional spirituality. Dividing a long-established canonical parish community is a serious thing, and my priests have stuck to a formula that largely avoids this problem.
Unfortunately, the product of years of peace keeping is a vanilla religious experience that describes not just the sermons but the selection of music and the style of the rites. If I were to say that “I get nothing out of Mass” the textbook response would be that my malaise is totally of my own making. Perhaps this is true in my case. But sacraments did not and do not originate from sole human experience. They are extensions of God’s love and direction. The Eucharist is the consummate feeding sacrament—feeding of the mind, of the emotions, of the body. Logically, an expectation of being taken to a new plane of existence ought to be the norm for all sacraments, but particularly for the Mass, an in-time reenactment of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the rising of the Lord [hence, “the Lord’s Day”].
The Greek philosopher Aristotle [384-322 B.C.] composed The Poetics, considered the greatest definition of the qualities of drama and tragedy of all time. The Poetics was considered required reading at my seminary, as the celebration of Mass is the enactment of the pivotal drama of human experience. Two points from Aristotle:  drama must maintain unity of action, i.e. every word, every rite point to the climax, and  the dramatic climax must raise our emotions to a point where we feel washed out, an experience called catharsis.
I have experienced precious little catharsis over the years of attending Mass; the sacrament seems celebrated as a checklist of things to be done, interrupted by personal pieties of the celebrant or the inordinately long list of “announcements” that go on longer than Luther’s 95 Theses. And so, for a period of weeks, on and off, I did think about making a break from active membership. I envisioned what life might be like without the Church, or in another faith community like the Quakers, or as a “sole proprietor” of my soul. I suspect that I decided not to give up on Catholicism in large part because I was baptized as one and honestly cannot imagine being something else. Curiously, the Café blog was helpful in stretching my own frontiers of belief and devotion. In doing an entry on the Reformation, for example, I was deeply moved by Martin Luther's metaphor of the Eucharist. When the bread and wine are changed at Mass, he wrote, we experience the final act of the Incarnation--God entering our world in full reality.
I remember the first evening I returned to a live Sunday Mass, and as I was leaving I laughed at myself as I remembered all the reasons I was so dissatisfied earlier in the year, and by George, they were all still there. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is the need for every Catholic to own his or her faith identity in every sense of the word. Put another way, to cultivate a well-formed Catholic conscience in the active tense, to take responsibility to look at the enormous corpus of Catholic prayer, theology, and history. To know one’s self well enough, for example, to confidently make moral choices such as whether it is safe and prudent to attend Mass. To pray in a truly cathartic sense. To do nothing to divide the Church and society further apart. To endure uninspiring liturgy for the many tangential reasons that make sense to you: good example to others, for one.
I will probably wrestle with liturgical agitation for a long time, but if I may quote the wise old New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” So, if your behind is weekly planted in a church pew, then you know who you are.
One final point: Catholics will always be in tension with some aspect of the Church’s human frailty. I like to think this is one of the reasons Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance—the place to be honest about who and where you are.