I went to mass this week for the first time since the state was locked down due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Years ago, I never thought I would see the day when I would miss going to church.
Growing up in Catholic school, we attended mass daily. It was the first thing we did in the morning. There was mass, followed by a trek across the parking lot to the school where we would stop and recite the pledge of allegiance before the flagpole and then into the school for class. We might skip the pledge if the weather was bad, but mass was not optional.
There was mass on Holy Days of Obligation, masses for funerals, weddings, baptisms, first communion, confirmation, graduation and almost any occasion that came up. When my brother enlisted in the Navy, there was a mass for him. When he came home safely, there was a mass of thanksgiving. There were masses on New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. When anyone had a birthday, we went to mass. Whenever we needed divine intervention, we went to mass. There were other mandatory religious duties then, like weekly confession or reciting the rosary nightly, but there was none more important than the mass and communion.
I was expected to serve as an altar boy. It was a privilege, after all. The hope was that service might lead one to consider becoming a priest. Altar boys had to have black shoes, black slacks and a white shirt and keep them clean, for mass could pop up at any moment. No matter that our altar server vestments, cassocks in both red and black with a white surplice, covered us from shoulder to heel. I served mass nearly every day, from requiem masses to the Sunday high mass, with incense and bells and special robes and prayers. On mass overload, I soon lost my reverence for it. It became a chore.
Designed to bring fallen Catholics home and to unite the church, the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s began to loosen things up. Latin disappeared from mass. Priests no longer faced away from the congregants, women no longer had to wear veils in church, new music was allowed. Still, to me, mass was just a series of prayers recited, a sermon, communion and then out. When the shorter and less formal Saturday Mass to Fulfill the Sunday Obligation services were introduced, my father made that his choice. He called it the “get it over with” mass.
In my twenties, I didn’t feel the need to practice my faith. God was in me, after all. I was a church unto myself and in my church, there was no need for the mass. (I was enough of a Catholic to argue why I didn’t need to adhere to Catholic tenants.) The only time I went to church was when I went with my mother as a courtesy or to a funeral. Slowly, though, things began to turn.
As much as I thought I was in control, those were the most out of control years for me. My willful and blatant disregard of everything that I knew was right happened during that time when I wasn’t going to church. Every now and then I would step in to a sanctuary and pray knowing that there was no one there but God and me, but somehow it just didn’t feel right. The community, all in prayer and hoping for God’s grace was what I missed.
Now, I can hear my son, an atheist at heart, giving me the spiel about what a crutch religion is and what evil has existed in the church and how anyone who puts their hope and energy into a group hoping for change is just deluding themselves. But people have always banded together. Republicans have an agenda and a direction as do democrats. Environmentalists, animal humane and LGBTQ activists, those fighting to end war and those who want to feed the world all have affected change by coming together and making their voices heard. That kind of change is real.
Slowly, I returned to my faith and to mass. I attended the high mass with my mother, with its incense and long prayers and a full choir dressed in all their splendor every Sunday. I told myself that God would remember my kindness. My mother, on the other hand, was likely saying every mass for me and for the rest of her children and it worked. I found myself enjoying and even needing the mass. I now saw it not as ceremony, but as community. My mother and I became friends with the ushers the people around us and when someone went missing, we worried. When my mother died, the small, Filipino woman who often sat near us asked after her. When I told her she had died, she said “I will say this mass for her.” It hadn’t even occurred to me that that was the thing that I needed most.
Returning to mass this week was surreal. We were allowed to return at twenty-five percent of our normal capacity and the archdiocese had to devise a way to make access fair. Those who wanted to attend the mass could go online, choose a mass to attend and get tickets. We would also agree to go to mass only one time this month so that others could attend mass and receive communion, something that most Catholics treasure. I got my tickets right away.
Attending mass was like seeing the changes in an old love after a number of years. The church parking lot was nearly empty and everyone wore facemasks. There was a Maitre d’ at the door checking our reservations. There was no choir, only the choir director playing from behind a screen. Every other pew was cordoned off.
There was no procession. Monsignor entered from the chamber next to the altar. He launched into the mass and it felt good to recite the Confiteor, the Gloria and the Agnus Dei with everyone. There were readings and then instructions on how to receive communion during this pandemic and a short homily. Monsignor was not allowed to give communion because of his age and anyone receiving communion was required to take it into their hand, step away, consume it an immediately leave the church. The whole affair was done in 25 minutes. It reminded me of my father’s mass.
Although strange and restricted, mass was even more so about those people in the pews around us, those who believe in the power of the mass to bring us together as a community. I left with my heart lighter but also saddened that I would not be able to come back anytime soon. Still, I felt like we could survive anything else that might come along.
Years ago, my grandmother attended mass every day prayed the rosary every night for the conversion of Russia. During that week when the Berlin wall came down, she sat and watched the news on her little living room TV in awe at what her prayers had brought about. As her sons and grandsons, gathered together for their weekly Monday night dinner, we were instructed to keep our coats on. We were going to mass to give thanks to God for this miracle. I remember all of the men grumbling. Hadn’t we just gone to mass the day before? Had I known on that evening that one day I would come to miss being in church, I would have moved a little quicker.