(Editor’s note: the following article is an updated version of what first appeared in the May issue of LiturgyNotes on the Diocese of Davenport’s website.)
“I can’t wait for things to get back to normal!” If we’ve not said this ourselves, we’ve certainly heard it. Parishioners and priests alike want to get back to Sunday Mass, to first Communions and confirmations, weddings and funerals. Just like they were before COVID-19. But here’s warning #1: that is not going to happen any time soon.
Let me explain. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, is very contagious. It has spread so quickly and so efficiently because, as a new virus, no one is immune to it. It takes roughly 60-70% of a population to be immune to a virus like this one for us to experience what is called “herd immunity,” meaning that enough people are immune to keep the virus from getting established in a community and spreading widely. And, it seems, that only comes at a price: a lot of illness and death. There is no evidence that “herd immunity” to this virus exists right now.
First, as far as we know, we’re nowhere near that 60% target. But here’s another problem: we don’t know if infection leads to immunity, either in the short or, more importantly, the long term. It may be that the only way to get clear, proven long-term herd immunity to this virus is by using a vaccine. And a vaccine that is proven to be both safe and effective is optimistically a year or more away. Once available, it (and everything you need to distribute and administer it) will need to be produced at a massive scale — which will also take time. And then priority needs to be given to those most at risk, such as healthcare providers, other essential workers, and those who are older or have other illnesses that put them at higher risk. Without herd immunity, the virus will continue to spread. It’s here to stay. Barring some unforeseen event, it is likely that we are not going back to “normal” for quite a while.
We will eventually re-open churches and gather again for worship. The questions that we need to answer are: (1) when can we do so and (2) how do we do so in a safe manner, to keep the numbers of those getting sick and dying as low as possible? In answering these questions, we need to keep warning #2 in mind: no matter how we relax current practices, once we do so more people will get sick and more people will die.
The safest approach (short of never re-opening) would be to wait until “herd immunity” is established. The next safest approach would be to wait until there is no further evidence of community spread (no new or very few new cases being reported each day) before making any changes. If this is going to happen, that’s probably months away (if at all). Relaxing physical distancing measures while the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths per day continue to rise and there continues to be inadequate surveillance would be the worst approach to take. Between the second and third scenarios is the option to make changes once the crest of this first wave has passed and there is clear evidence that this wave of the pandemic is starting to subside.
By taking this last approach, we now need to ask ourselves how we can begin to transition, not back to how things used to be before COVID-19, but to a temporary way of living with an ongoing pandemic as we wait for a vaccine to hopefully be developed. What will being church and celebrating the sacraments look like between now and then? How do we approach answering the two questions of when and how to move from what we’re doing now to something a little closer to what we’re used to?
In order to decide when it’s the right time to change what we’re doing, we need to show that things are getting better (# new infections, hospitalizations and deaths are dropping), we need to be prepared to handle any return of the outbreak, and we need a way to know what happens after we make those changes. When the time is right, we’ll start by simply opening the churches to visitors again. If that goes well, we’ll begin to gather together again for Mass and the other liturgies of the church in a modified way.
As far as what we do is concerned, we need to keep in mind warning #3: infections spread when lots of people are close together, and religious practices bring people closely together. The longer we’re together, the higher the risk. So what we usually do as a church is, from the point of view of spreading this virus, very risky. A number of outbreaks of COVID-19 can be traced back to religious gatherings—such as a funeral in Chicago (see the CDC video embedded on our website) or choir practice near Seattle. So, as we think about returning to our churches we need to be especially careful to lower this risk by keeping the maximum number of people who are in a place low, being together for as little time as possible, keeping apart as much as we can, and trying to keep from spreading the “spray” that we make when we talk and sing, cough and sneeze, and even breathe. Anyone who wants to take part in Mass or other gatherings needs to understand that they are taking a calculated risk, not only for themselves but for their families and anyone else they are around.
What can we expect? The Sunday and Holy Day Obligation will still be dispensed. The number of people in the church building will need to be limited, and they will still need to be seated apart from each other. We may need to use overflow spaces, change Mass schedules (extra time will be needed for cleaning and disinfecting), or assign households to specific times to come to church. Depending on the parish, and on readiness to attend Mass, individuals or families may need to attend a weekday rather than a Sunday Mass, or attend once a month rather than once a week. Don’t plan on sitting in your usual place!
First Communions and confirmations may need to be celebrated with a smaller community rather than a whole class gathered, perhaps over a series of weekends. Couples may still not be able to have all their family and friends at their wedding and grandparents may need to stay away from baptisms. We’ll need to change how we celebrate ordinations and other diocesan liturgies. We’ll definitely need to keep using technology to keep us connected with those who still need or want to stay home.
I know the initiation of our catechumens and candidates is high on everyone’s list of concerns. Once we begin to transition back into gathering for worship, the candidates can be received and confirmed; as soon as possible, we’ll set a date for the full initiation of the catechumens. Of course, we’ll need to be attentive to how many worshippers are allowed to gather and to how these rites need to be modified.
What might we do to help couples who celebrated the sacrament of marriage in front of just two witnesses now celebrate with family and friends? What might we do to remember the dead, and walk with mourners who could not celebrate the church’s funeral rites? These are also important questions.
We’ll need to be careful with our handwashing and covering our coughs, and we’ll need to wear cloth face coverings (non-medical “masks”) around each other. Familiar practices, like receiving Communion on the tongue or from the chalice, and even singing, will need to wait. Some may choose to come to Mass, but not receive Communion. Importantly, those most at risk—those who are older and have underlying health issues—are encouraged to stay home.
Which brings us to warning #4: Until we are able to reach herd immunity, it isn’t known if we’ll experience just a steady presence of the virus, waves that come and go, or a tsunami of infections like the 1918 flu pandemic. So we need to be ready for the likelihood that we will see increases in the numbers of people getting sick and dying — and, in response, we’ll need to adjust what we’re doing. A sustained increase in infections ought to trigger a return to more restrictive practices. We’re in for a lengthy and complicated back-and-forth as we respond to the situation in front of us — whether it’s a spike in COVID-19 infections or a flu-season on top of COVID-19.
Which means that, as eager as we might be to return right away to what was, we need to realize that it’s just not going to be. We’re in for a marathon, not a sprint. Patience and understanding will be needed in abundance. And, faithful to who we are as Christians, we will need to keep putting others – especially the most vulnerable – first.