“Where is everybody? I’m the one who’s supposedly at risk!”
“They’re at home; protecting you.”
This exchange between an elderly parishioner and a pastor in my diocese took place this past Sunday. This was the first weekend for which our bishop had dispensed the faithful from our Mass obligation because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. In other dioceses across the country and world, public Masses were canceled altogether. Our diocese has since followed suit.
When I heard that our bishop had issued the dispensation, I felt anxious. It was not anxiety about the virus itself; it was anxiety about the choice of whether or not to attend Mass with my family a few days later. It was an ideal situation for Catholic guilt: we could go to Mass, yet we didn’t have to. With all the uncertainty about the presence of the virus and how it is hiding in plain sight, I was of course worried about my wife and my children, even myself. It was not in thinking about our family that I finally came to the clear decision about not attending Mass at our parish on Sunday. It was by thinking about people like this elderly parishioner that clarity dawned on me. We might be carriers––I might be a carrier––and that puts others at risk in a public setting.
That is a serious thought. It is also a social thought. That is the great challenge for most of us in this pandemic: thinking socially rather than individually. I could go to Mass or I desire to go to Mass, but I am responsible not just for the risk to myself and my family, but to others as well. We are responsible for each other.
At the time of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge that we refrain from or cancel gatherings of 50 persons or more because of the threat of the virus’s rapid spread, which would overwhelm our hospitals and medical resources, thus creating a grave social crisis such as Italy is already facing. Soon thereafter, the directive to the nation was adjusted to discouraging gatherings of 10 persons or more. This means that dispensations like my own bishop announced for this past weekend will soon become the outright cancellation of public Masses in most if not all dioceses, as has now happened in ours. The Mass will still be offered––even offered for us––but we will not be there. This is the saddest of all losses for a faithful Catholic. It is also the cost of taking responsibility for one another.
Many Catholics whom I admire and respect oppose the cancellation of public Masses. I feel their frustration and their sadness, and yet I disagree with them. Yes, Christ is our strength and our hope, who gives himself to us in the sacrifice of the Mass. And yes, it is our duty and our delight to join ourselves in person to his sacrifice in the Sunday liturgy—indeed, it is our “obligation.”
But if we arrive to make our offering at the Sunday liturgy while having offended our neighbor, we must first go and reconcile before approaching the altar. Or if on the way to Mass we were to see someone in need, we must not pass by on the other side but rather go down into the ditch to tend to their wounds. And likewise, if gathering together for the Sunday Mass might make victims of some of our members or cause the pain and suffering of others in our community, then it is our duty to abstain from our regular obligation. This duty is not merely civic; it is religious.
I am reminded of Shūsaku Endo’s haunting novel, Silence, because the crucial question at the heart of the drama is not about one’s own wellbeing, but the wellbeing of others. The Jesuit missionary refuses to apostatize to save himself from suffering at the hands of his persecutors. His shrewd persecutors do not lay his own wellbeing before him, though; instead, they give him the choice to relieve or perpetuate the suffering of others. Should he, the missionary, refuse to stomp on the face of Christ, others will be tortured and killed. In obedience to Christ, then, the missionary denies Christ and saves others. He denies Christ to follow Christ, or at least that is what one is left to ponder at the end of the novel.
We are not talking about apostasy here. We are talking about the sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, we are talking about the privilege of celebrating the Mass together and, for many, personally receiving the Eucharist. We are talking about sacrificing that for the sake of our brothers and sisters. We are talking about making a personal and social sacrifice with a special preference for the elderly and the most vulnerable among us. We are talking about a sacrifice for the wellbeing of the medical professionals who will care for the sick in the coming weeks, even beyond the capacities our hospitals and supplies can absorb.
The cancelling of public Masses or even heeding a dispensation from Mass is, in some ways, an excessive response on the individual level. The risk to any individual of being infected remains low. But systemic precaution at the early stages of a pandemic such as this is not merely some “best practice;” it may well be a moral imperative. This concerns a cooperative and collective action to save others and promote a social good. This collective action requires individual sacrifice. For Catholics who are called upon to forgo participating in the celebration of the Mass, that is a serious sacrifice, a social sacrifice, and it might be the holiest sacrifice we can make right now.
“Where is everybody?”
“They’re at home, protecting you.”