Mary Pope-Handy 408 204-7673 mary@popehandy.com

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.

St. Clare

St. Clare was an abbess and at one time was too ill to attend Mass, but enjoyed a vision of it on her bedroom wall.  She was made the Patron Saint of television by Pope Pius XII for that reason. Perhaps she could also be the patron saint of those unable to attend Mass in person but viewing it remotely. We know that she would approve of the livestreaming of the liturgy!

Making Mass safer for all

In 2020, when we were all blindsided by the onslaught of this virus, and even into 2021, mask wearing was mandated and then just strongly encouraged. Today most liturgies see very little masking, perhaps 5% in my experience. This doesn’t make it safer for anyone, but I don’t expect it to change. It may not make sense for the principal celebrant to don a mask, but why not encourage the congregation to do so? We provide hand sanitizer in many churches. Do we also provide masks? The virus is much more likely to be contracted from breathing than touching.

No matter what, please do not make fun of people wearing masks (at church or anywhere else). No one loves wearing a mask. (I have been harassed about it myself too many times to count, including by family, friends, and coworkers. It’s not cool.)

Or the other side of the coin: I’ve heard priests praise the congregation for going unmasked. I know, you like to see their faces, it’s understood. But it’s no good if they get sick or unwittingly make others sick. Please don’t push people to stop wearing masks.

A Jewish friend of ours said that in her congregation they have an area which is more safe with further spacing of seats and everyone in that section masking. That seems like a great idea. Would Catholics object? (When we go in person, we try to go to an emptier area.)

Outdoor Masses, weather permitting, are also safer for all. I’m aware that liturgically this is not ideal for many reasons. It was a blessing early in the pandemic. Can we not get dispensations to use it again? When the weather is more cooperative, this would be a gift.

What can one person do?

When there are big, crowded, indoor events and pretty much no one is masking it’s truly not safe for someone with vulnerable health conditions. Add enthusiastic singing and spending more than 15 minutes in close proximity to others (who may be part of the asymptomatic group) and the risks go up. On the one hand, we love to see full church pews, smiling faces, and strong singing and praying. At the same time, these conditions are unsafe for some with invisible disabilities if COVID is there in the church with them.

Each person who masks helps to create a safer environment for all, particularly since without symptoms it’s not possible to know if one has the virus or not unless that person just tested negative. Providing masks would be helpful as both a suggestion that it matters and as a tool for those who would wear one but forgot.

Weather permitting, encourage doors to remain open and windows open for better air flow.

If Mass is not currently live streamed at the parish or church, see if it can be added. If not, include a list of resources online for viewing Mass.

If the unseen are not mentioned in the Mass, encourage inclusion.

Bottom line, each of us can be an advocate for more inclusionary practices that will help with including the invisible.

 

 

Related reading:

Mass attendance