Mary Pope-Handy 408 204-7673

Including the invisible

Including the invisible - please remember that some of the faithful are watching Mass online from homeOur liturgies do a beautiful job of including the invisible whenever we pray for the intercession of the saints and angels, or for our dead, for those hospitalized or sick or homebound, those in prisons, and those who are unable to be physically present at Mass. The communion of saints is a big tent of inclusion. (And it’s one of my favorite things about being Catholic!)

COVID-19 and lower Mass attendance

COVID-19 is no longer a pandemic, but it isn’t gone – it is endemic, meaning we won’t be able to fully obliterate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. We are four years in and all of us are sick of it. Many are ignoring it – they are burned out on this topic. But it’s not gone, as much as we wish it were.

A couple of weeks ago I knew four people home sick with that coronavirus, and before that one in the hospital with it (the latter was unvaccinated, the rest all had at least some vaccination protection). And I know many who have long COVID in one form or another.

Important to know is that somewhere around 30-40% of Covid cases are asymptomatic, which is great for the person who has no symptoms, but not so great for those who will get the full blown experience of the virus from them.

As of this writing in February 2024, COVID wastewater levels are high. The peak of the current wave (2nd highest since Covid started) was two or three weeks ago, but it will take a while for the amount of virus circulating to get to Medium. There is a wonderful weekly Covid newsletter put out by a Bay Area doctor, Ruth Ann Crystal, MD. In the 2-10-2024 newsletter, she writes:

Reviewing commercial insurance data in the EPOCH-US study, immunocompromised people make up just under 3% of the population. But, because they are at high risk of severe COVID infections and prolonged hospitalizations, immunocompromised people account for 30% of total hospitalization costs for COVID-19. For many reasons, it is important to protect immunocompromised people against severe outcomes from acute COVID infection.

Three percent is a small amount of people unless you are one of them, or have a family member or close friend in that category and need to be extra careful to not expose that person to unnecessary risks. The immunocompromised population (or at least some of them) are part of the reason why pews have not refilled. People with other risk factors, such as old age, diabetes, lung disease, obesity, or other issues may similarly be staying home for their own safety. Not all, of course.

This may be a permanent change, or it may vary with how prevalent the virus is at any given time. Each person may approach the risk of sickness, long COVID, financial concerns from missing work or of medical bills, or other factors, differently. These are personal decisions and there’s no one-size-fits-all story.

Being absent from the church building and community worship doesn’t mean they have all abandoned either their faith or the church. Including the invisible who are struggling with health challenges such as being immunocompromised is a worthwhile effort for us as people of faith.

A personal connection to this topic

In this blog I don’t really like talking about myself much, but on this subject of including the invisible I think I ought to share that I’m one of those 3% who are immunocompromised (and have a few other risk factors as well). In mid 2023 the infection levels seemed low, so I was overjoyed to return to Mass in person. But when COVID levels skyrocketed just after Advent began, we retreated back to Masses online.

For those unfamiliar with the term, being immunocompromised means that the person with that condition gets sick easier than most people and may take much longer to recover, or have a poorer outcome due to infections. If you listen to the TV ads for Rheumatoid Arthritis or Psoriatic Arthritis meds, you’ll hear a quick warning that taking those prescriptions may make individuals more prone to infection, certain cancers, and death.

Including the invisible is personal to me. If you know anyone in this boat, it may be to you, too.

Huge thanks to the parishes that livestream and record Mass

Early in 2020, all of us quickly learned how to utilize online meetings, and just as quickly, parishes and other churches (such as university chapels) figured out how to live stream Mass. This was and continues to be a great boon to those who cannot (or should not) gather indoors with crowds. Being able to stream from anywhere in the world can be marvelous, but it’s also a help to be able to view Mass at one’s own community or parish.

Some parishes even include the words of the songs and prayers on the screen, which is very helpful and inclusive.

Many thanks to all of you who do this ministry and support it.

Including the invisible at Mass with a few words

There are various times when it may be possible to mention those not physically present but watching online (live or recorded). This can happen in welcome comments at or before the beginning of Mass, or at the final blessing, or in the prayers of the faithful. For me, it’s a small gesture that makes me feel remembered and included. Many thanks to all who wrap that into the liturgy – it is appreciated.  Words matter.

Mass attendance

Catholic symbols - Sunday Mass attendance, refilling the pewsBefore Covid, Sunday Mass attendance within Santa Clara County was about 100,000 people of 600,000 registered Catholics. That’s approximately 17%.

That always struck me as surprisingly low.

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 forced everyone home. While the coronavirus is still raging as we close out 2022, it’s not as acute of a crisis for most, thanks to Omicron being less damaging than Delta and the availability of both vaccines and post infection treatments.

Even so, people are continuing to get infected, hospitalized, and dying. The newest variants are immune-evasive. Many people refused to get boosted. China just changed its approach to the pandemic, cases are skyrocketing and new variants are likely coming.

It’s not over. We just wish that it were.

Mass attendance dispensation and the lifting of it

Our local bishop in the Diocese of San Jose thoughtfully provided a dispensation from the Sunday Mass attendance obligation during the worst days of Covid, but removed it once things improved earlier this year. For those of us who are immunocompromised (and that includes me), we are not obligated to go.

To me, that’s common sense. It’s known that immunocompromised people get sick easier and stay sick longer and have more risks associated. Those living with them must also be extra careful to avoid bringing the virus home.

I can tell you first hand that it’s no fun to say no to indoor family get togethers, let alone Mass in person. I miss both of them. It’s isolating, and it’s made worse by comments of well wishers who think that avoiding these things is going too far.

What about everyone else?

Many or perhaps most Roman Catholics in the Diocese of San Jose and elsewhere have not been returning to the weekly liturgies despite the overall improvement and the dispensation being lifted. Why is that? Does Mass attendance not matter anymore?

First, we must remember that our prior Mass attendance level was just 17%. Any discussion of the problem needs to acknowledge that Covid did not empty the pews. They were largely empty before Covid ever hit.

Of course, now it’s worse.


Nourished by the Church

Are you feeling nourished by the Church? There are some wonderful parishes and priests out there. Right now, one of the silver linings to Covid is that we can live stream Mass from anywhere in the world. If your own immediate parish situation is not good for you, I would like to suggest changing parishes or getting nourished by the Church online if nothing else immediate can do the trick.


Catholic means universal not uniform


If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that one of the central concerns I have is in the area of alienation and belonging with the Church (two sides of the same coin). In other words, what helps people to stay Catholic when the going gets rough? And what motivates people to leave when they just cannot take it anymore?

To me, these are core questions. How can we help to stem the alienation and increase the welcoming and belonging which are central to having a Christian community?

We want to be nourished by the Church and to also be nourishing to others in that setting or community. But not every parish will be a good fit for each of us. (I can hear someone screaming “cafeteria Catholic!”, but please bear with me and keep reading.)

Ecumenism is important. Jesus didn’t want us as Christians to splinter into a million denominations. Just as important, though, is not alienating believers by the harm that we do as individuals, people, or Church leaders. If we cannot change the parish (or perhaps the priest) to stop doing harm, the best thing may be to move on. But hopefully not out of the Catholic Church!


Scandalized by the Church

Scandalized by the Church - person prayingThe abuse crisis has caused many Catholics to be scandalized by the Church. The irony is that Catholic leaders hid what was happening precisely because they did not want to scandalize the faithful – among other reasons, of course.

Like many people, I have family and friends who stopped attending Mass or even ceased  considering themselves Catholic at all because of the way that bishops and other religious leaders concealed the abuse and protected the abusers. They should have been focusing on the children and vulnerable adults who were hurt. They should have turned the abusers over to law enforcement.

While most of the sexual abuse happened before reforms were instituted 20+ years ago, the stories just keep coming here and around the world. And now there are other scandals involving Catholic boarding schools for indigenous children and mass, unmarked graves in Canada and the U.S.

“They have no business telling me how I should behave”, said one of my relatives recently.

The outrage that we Catholics collectively feel is not aimed at the whole Church, but at the hierarchy and superiors of religious orders who are guilty of the abuse personally, or  who covered it up, protected the abusers, and did not care sufficiently about the welfare of the injured.

The hierarchy does not equal the Church, though. We are all the Church.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, a prolific theologian, wrote a compelling book entitled “Models of the Church“. (Click on the link to learn more about these models.) When I read it in college, there were five models, or ways of understanding the Church. He later added one more.

They are the Church as:

  • Institution
  • Mystical Communion
  • Sacrament
  • Herald
  • Servant
  • Community of Disciples

I found it very useful to think about the Church in a broader way then the top-down version I was taught as a child. Today it may be helpful for the many alienated and hurt Catholics to look beyond just the institution when considering their relationship with the Church. (more…)

Rebuild My Church

Imagine praying intently while all alone, and then hearing something – not a little voice in your head or heart, a but one outside of you which you hear with your ears. This happened to St. Francis many centuries ago. He was praying in the dilapidated church at San Damiano when he heard physically God ask him to rebuild and repair his church.

Image: Today, it is clericalism, abuse, and secrecy which are choking the church like a giant python. At first, he took this command literally, thinking that God meant that he needed to repair the church building there. In time, he realized that the invitation was far bigger, and probably a lot scarier, than taking on a religious building in ruins. It was to help bring about reform in the church at large.

Today, we need to also hear that same call to create reform, as our church is now in ruins from one abuse scandal after the next. In St. Francis’ time, there was no small share of corruption that he was intent on taking on, though it was of a different kind.  Today, it is clericalism, abuse, and secrecy which are choking the church like a giant python.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been letters and homilies in response to the current wave of abuse crisis news. Pope Francis issued a letter, made a number of statements during his trip to Ireland, and included, in one Mass, petitions that were specific to abuse.

Our bishop in the  Diocese of San Jose, Patrick McGrath, published a statement on the DSJ website which you can find here. While it conveys our communal sense of horror and grief and it calls for prayer, it falls short in that it does not promise transparency, which is sorely needed. The diocese here, like everywhere in the U.S., needs to open up its files and make known all credible accusations. (Note: the diocese later provided a list of those credibly accused.)

As a diocese, we can and must do more than say words of commiseration. We must act. (more…)

The alienation of elderly Catholics

Growing Old Is Not For Sissies“Growing old is not for sissies,” my grandmother used to quip.  She would know as she lived to be just 2 days shy of her 100th birthday.

As people age, they tend to suffer a series of losses:

  • loss of the senses – hearing, sight, taste
  • loss of friends and relatives whom they outlive
  • loss of work or a sense of purpose (in many cases)
  • loss of driving and the freedom & independence that brings
  • loss of control over life generally with increased medical problems, doctor visits, perhaps where the senior needs to live for health or financial reasons
  • loss of a social life (with the living situation & end of driving)
  • loss of memory for many (or general confusion in some cases)

All of these can be a source for feeling left out and alienated.  But as they start stacking up, these mounting losses can pave the way for depression and at times leave the individual pining for death and remove the desire to go to church or feel like a part of the community.

What can be done to help regarding alienation, the elderly, and the church?

Some elderly people stop going to church or religious services even though in the past it was life-giving for them because the effort has become so great and once they get there, the acoustics may not be good for them to hear what is going on (and in many cases they may not be able to see what is happening either).  In a large place of worship, they may be too far away to be able to follow, so attending may be an exercise in frustration for them. They are surrounded by others but definitely feel alone. (more…)