COVID-19 Took My Holy Water (Part I of III): What’s missing, and who might we miss?
Sometimes I’m flying on autopilot as I enter the Mass. Often, I am the hostage of my daydreams. I’ve started off for destinations near (like the fridge) or far (like the grocery store) only to get lost inside myself and end up in a place I never intended to be, or if I end up at the intended spot, have no clue what I came for. Put your trust in auto-pilot too often and you may wake up just as your plane impacts the side of the mountain. Such was the case at last Saturday’s anticipatory Mass as I followed the predetermined flight path and reached for the holy water font as I flew through the vestibule. My hand smacked into the metal basket that usually holds the marble font. I was stunned, and just as the wreckage of a smashed plane skids along after impact, I started to make the sign of the cross with a scraped knuckle and dry fingertips. “What’s the idea here? I thought we took the fonts away on Holy Saturday?” Had I blanked out all of Lent? Maybe giving up drinking was a bigger shock to my system than I considered. I sat in my usual pew on the edge of being pulled down into a vortex of questioning my sanity when Father Tom made an announcement before Mass began. COVID-19 (I refuse to use the other name out of respect to the beer) had caused our church to make some adjustments to the goings-on of our Eucharistic Celebration — temporarily.
After the announcements, Father didn’t ask us to stand and greet each other before singing the entrance hymn. We just stood. Once I had been the type of Catholic who was content to get in and out without much interaction. My wife is Pentecostal, and when I made an appearance at her churches, I was always put off by the evangelical welcome wagon that swarms you like a gaggle of geese after of piece of popcorn bobbing in the pond. But as the hymn began (Parce Domine) I felt disconnected as our community waved to each other with our hands held close to our bodies. I yearned for handshakes and hugs.
Later as the altar was prepared, I remembered that the procession of the gifts had been canceled. I always looked forward to seeing which family would bring up gifts especially when there are little ones. Eyes light up when a small child carries the ciborium or cruet as everyone wonders if they’d complete the journey without dropping anything. Without this moment of suspense, the liturgy of the Eucharist was off to a sprinting start. We had been advised that holding hands during the Our Father wasn’t mandatory, especially if you have a cough. The same went for exchanging signs of peace, that we should cross our arms over our chest if we weren’t comfortable. Before Agnus Dei, I turned with my hand out to greet those around me and met a set of crossed arms. My extended hand became a peace symbol wagged at my brothers and sisters in Christ. Finally, as you may have guessed, the community did not receive the most precious blood.
I knelt to pray after receiving the Eucharist and recalled that I had watched an episode of Archbishop Sheen and the importance of touch as a form of communication. Christ laid his hands on the untouchables of Judea. Lepers. The possessed. Other ritualistically “unclean” people yearning to be healed for the sake of the physical well-being as well as restoring their ability to enter the temple and praise God. Touch, as Archbishop Sheen said, is a unique form of communication in the sense it truly bridges the divide of otherness. Separation — otherness — is so pervasive in this modern society, but I imagine even the most gnarly troll would have difficulty berating someone after holding their hand or hugging them four times a month (or more). So yes, I was complaining about what we lacked during the mass while reflecting on the kneeler. Then, as it happens, I had a revelation of sorts. The people whose handshakes and hugs I longed for happened to be elderly.
“Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth. (Psalms: 71:9)”
My parish is almost entirely comprised of the very people who are threatened the most by COVID-19. I’m not sure what the actual statistics are, but I’d venture to say the majority of my archdiocese is eligible for the 55+ menu at Denny’s. Not only the parishioners but our clergy as well, I pondered as Father Tom took his seat and the assembled slid back into the pews.
Should every parish have a plan in place to stop the spread of COVID-19? Absolutely. This sickness is out for our most vulnerable populations — the people Jesus commanded us to care for most. Not only the elderly, but those already battling compromised respiratory systems, and everyone without access to healthcare — just as the Holy Father said recently. I don’t want to see a single grandma or grandpa who gives me hugs and kisses weekly taken away by this virus. If God were taking his cues from me, he’d be back tomorrow to welcome every one of our elderly into his arms without them having to experience that word I’ve avoided up till now — DEATH.
I was disturbed by the absence of our holy water fonts, I felt the absence of a personal touch during the celebration, and of course, I missed receiving the most precious blood. But I imagined our parish without our seniors and my heart sank as I imagined a big church with half its pews empty.
Anti-Theists rejoice at such a thought. I’ve seen trolls wishing illness on the Pope and applauding the spread of illness to the Vatican. I listened to journalists discussing the possibility of mandatory suspension of Church gatherings declared by governments in Europe. “Religious freedom is not absolute,” the guest speaker said on this edition of NPR’s The Takeaway.
I won’t get started on these worries now.
Instead for the moment, my friend, let’s consider how much our seniors mean to us. We owe them so much. They passed the faith on to us as our catechists, our Godparents, our spiritual advisors, our clergy. They keep the candles lit and the incense burning through their sacrifice of time, talent, and finances. What demographic do you think devotes most of its time to praying The Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet? Do you think Millennials or i-Gens are as willing to pry themselves away from themselves to pray for other souls? Sure, some of us do — but, brothers and sisters, I’m afraid that it’s not just a matter of size when it comes to filling the shoes of our older generations, but the number of feet. Imagine all those pairs of penny loafers, flats, orthopedics, and crocks left behind where our blessed elders were the week before. Is there a pair of sandals where Father sat the week before? Now let’s look at who’s left inside the house of God and ask the question many of us daren’t ask: What are we going to do?
“Yet truly, when the Son of man returns, do you think that he will find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)”
Each season has its calamity, no doubt. I pray for the Lord to help those fighting COVID-19, as caregivers, as scientists seeking solutions, and those who are afflicted. We should not give in to panic, but to ignore our vulnerabilities is irresponsible. Let’s praise God for the blessings bestowed on us by him through our older brothers and sisters, but at the same time let us be ready to pass on the blessings we have received.
Next issue: COVID-19 took my Holy Water (Part II of III): and now my Mass too.