reflections, updates and homilies from Deacon Mike Talbot inspired by the following words from my ordination: Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach...
Susie Dickman of Batesville, Ind., prays after receiving Holy Communion at St. Louis Church. (CNS photo/Katie Rutter)
In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, and across the entire state of Indiana, May 23 was the first Sunday since March 2020 that Catholics could worship in their parish churches without social distancing and wearing masks. Being greeted at the front door to Sts. Peter and Paul here in Huntington by an usher not wearing a mask was initially jarring, but that first reaction quickly turned to joy.
As the congregation filed in, some were wearing masks, while most weren’t. While Father Tony Steinacker has designated the row of shorter pews on St. Joseph’s side of the church to remain under the previous rules for social distancing (every other pew roped off) and mask wearing, those who wore masks sat with the rest of the congregation, and St. Joseph’s side remained empty. Most of those wearing masks were older adults, vaccinated or unvaccinated, with various health conditions, and children, such as ours, who either have not been vaccinated (because vaccinations haven’t been opened to them) or aren’t fully vaccinated yet. The majority of children who aren’t eligible yet for vaccination went maskless, as their parents did.
Amy and I are both fully vaccinated, and we chose not to wear masks. From the beginning, I have resisted attempts to politicize mask-wearing, or even to view it as a social statement, but it did strike me that, in our family’s pew, the mix of unmasked, fully vaccinated adults; masked, partially vaccinated young adults; and masked, unvaccinated children represents a snapshot of this particular moment in time in the course of this pandemic. Over the next few weeks, the balance of masked and unmasked members of our family at Sunday Mass will shift in favor of the unmasked; but it will likely be months before our youngest, who turned 9 in January, will join her parents and older brothers and sisters in worshiping without a mask.
Of course, the entirely unmasked family across the aisle from us represented a snapshot of a different sort: not necessarily an ideological or political one, but a reminder that, from the beginning, different people have viewed the threat posed by this virus differently. As Our Sunday Visitor’s editorial board discussed last week (“Navigating new COVID guidelines as a Church”), that reality will make these next few months, as dioceses restore the Sunday obligation and more and more people (we hope and pray) return to Mass, fraught with threats to parish unity.
Unless, of course, we all act like Christians and treat one another with charity. That’s why I was happy to see that Father Tony had made accommodations for those who might continue to feel more comfortable socially distanced and among others wearing a mask, and that everyone (at the 8 a.m. Mass, at least) who was wearing a mask felt comfortable sitting among the unmasked. It was good to see friends and fellow parishioners whom I’ve only seen outside of church over the last year once again in the pews with us (and before June 13, when the Sunday obligation will be restored in the dioceses of Indiana). And despite my own certainty that we can’t snap our fingers and return overnight to the status quo ante COVID-19, it was good to feel that we’re on the road back.
Will there be obstacles on that road? Of course. Were there people wearing masks today thinking uncharitable thoughts about those who weren’t wearing masks (and vice versa)? Probably. Will there be a news story or 10 about an outbreak (hopefully minor) traced back to a Catholic parish now that restrictions have been lifted? Almost certainly.
But here on May 23, 2021, the situation looks very different from May 23, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic changed society in many ways — some, we hope, for the better; others, undoubtedly for the worse. For the Church, as we come back home again, let us pray that charity will prevail, and every parish community — and the entire Church in the United States — will emerge stronger than before.