Many Catholics have long since returned to regular Mass attendance, assured that their parishes were taking the proper precautions to keep them safe.
Others have been waiting until they could be fully vaccinated before feeling it was safe to attend.
But with vaccines now available everywhere for anyone 16 or older, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann has announced that he will be lifting the dispensation from Mass that he originally announced on March 13, 2020, at the outbreak of the pandemic.
The timing is particularly appropriate: The dispensation will be lifted on Corpus Christi Sunday, which this year falls on June 6.
The Leaven spoke with Michael Podrebarac, archdiocesan liturgist, about why this is the perfect time for all of us to gather again on the solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
Q. Could you explain what a dispensation is and why Archbishop Naumann granted it in the first place?
A. A dispensation is when a law of the church is set aside for some serious reason for the sake of the faithful. In this case, Archbishop Naumann, like other bishops in the United States, dispensed the faithful from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass because of the risks of large gatherings associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q. When will the dispensation be lifted and why then?
A. It is set to be lifted beginning with the Sunday Masses celebrated for the solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, June 5 and 6.
Q. What is Corpus Christi Sunday, and why did Archbishop Naumann think it was a particularly appropriate time to invite Catholics back in this way?
A. Corpus Christi is the solemnity on which we recall the great gift of himself which Our Lord has bestowed upon the church in the Eucharist. It is, for this reason, an especially appropriate time to renew our commitment to celebrating Sunday Mass as a congregation.
Q. What does this mean for me specifically? What if I still haven’t been vaccinated and am afraid to be in a large group or am still concerned about the new variants? Am I still obliged to come to Mass?
A. The announcement by Archbishop Naumann indicates that those “who suffer from underlying health concerns or compromised immunity, or who have genuinely serious concerns about the risk of contracting the coronavirus” are not required to return to Mass attendance. Fortunately, that is not the overwhelming majority of us, and so most of us, once vaccinated, can return to Sunday Mass with faithful confidence.
Q. Why are Catholics obliged to go to Mass anyway? What does it mean when we pray at Mass that “it is right and just” that we do this?
A. The whole purpose of being a Christian is to be close to the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no way for us as Catholics to be nearer to Our Lord than through the eucharistic sacrifice and holy Communion. Additionally, Christ has called us to offer ourselves in sacrifice to God, especially through the memorial of his body and blood, and so it is really from Christ himself — “do this in remembrance of me” — that we have the obligation to come together for Mass, in remembrance of him. The most perfect act of prayer by the church and her members is the Mass, by which it is “right and just” that we give God thanks and praise.
Q. Does that mean Masses will no longer be livestreamed?
A. Eventually, only a few parishes may continue to offer a livestream Mass from the parish church. Either way, the necessity for this ministry will decline as those who are able make their way back to worshiping in person. Watching Mass transmitted by livestream is not an alternative to those able to attend Mass in person. This is why it’s important for our parish communities to reach out to those who are ill or otherwise homebound, because sacramental participation, which is essential to us as Catholics, must always be a live, personal encounter with God and one another.
Q. If I go to Mass at my parish, will I have to wear a mask, socially distance and sanitize — in other words, follow the pandemic restrictions?
A. This will depend on local health guidelines and directives, although the parish pastor may determine that mask wearing is required for those attending Mass. Until such time as health officials no longer suggest or direct the precautions associated with the pandemic, many of them will remain in place in most of our parishes, as a matter of public safety and care for one another.
Q. What will other parishioners think when they see me back after all this time?
A. They will be excited to see you after such a long time! We are at our best when we are together, and so people returning to Mass is a joyous time for all of us, even as we continue with certain precautions.
Q. What difference does it make to anyone if I come back or not?
A. It truly makes all the difference. To the individual, it means coming back into the presence of God which can be accomplished in no other way, our participation in the celebration of the Eucharist at Mass.
To the parish, it means coming together again as a family of faith in a way that each of us needs, for we need each other. To the church, it means having all her children who are able gathered together again, after such a long absence, to sacramentally manifest the body of Christ.
As Catholics, no one of us is called to fly solo. We do our best when we’re together in Spirit and purpose. Perhaps that’s why the Irish author James Joyce aptly described the Catholic Church as: “Here comes everybody!”
Q. Will I be safe going back to Mass?
A. Yes, I believe so. Our parishes have done an outstanding job navigating the perils of the pandemic, and there is no reason to suggest that we will not continue to exercise all due discretion in making sure our congregations are as safe as possible.
Q. Will everything be “back to normal” or will things be different — and how different?
A. As many experts and observers have suggested, we may never get back to what we once considered “normal” when it comes to life post-pandemic, and the same may be true for the church as well. Certain practices such as the sign of peace and holy Communion under both forms are perhaps still a long ways off.
Extra care will be needed for holy water fonts as they return to use. We’ve been reminded of “best practices” that perhaps should have never been taken for granted.
We will continue to walk by faith, of course, first and foremost, along with hope and love, as the greatest virtues of the church. But prudence ranks near the top, and wisdom and understanding are gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of this pandemic is twofold: a greater appreciation for life itself and its many blessings, and a greater sense of intention when it comes to practicing our faith.