Midway through Lent 2020, Catholic churches in the Diocese of Rochester and throughout the nation were forced to suspend the celebration of public Masses in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Recognizing the health risk posed by public gatherings, Bishop Salvatore R. Matano — along with numerous other U.S. bishops — temporarily dispensed Catholics from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.
Many local parishes turned to technology, beginning to “livestream” their Masses on websites or social media to help parishioners remain connected to each other and to their faith when they couldn’t physically be in church. Similarly, the Catholic Courier livestreamed a series of liturgies celebrated by Bishop Matano during Holy Week and Easter.
“When we had to have our churches closed last year during Holy Week, Easter, that was a very painful experience. The best we could do was to livestream the Masses, but it’s no substitute for person-to-person worship,” Bishop Matano recently recalled.
Some diocesan Catholics recognized that video liturgies were a poor substitute for the real thing, and returned to Mass in June 2020 as soon as New York state permitted houses of worship to resume indoor worship services, albeit with significantly reduced occupancies and a host of requirements to meet.
The number of diocesan Catholics in the pews has grown steadily since then, now approaching 60 percent of pre-pandemic attendance, Bishop Matano said. And as New York continues to lift capacity restrictions and requirements, he hopes even more Catholics will come back to Mass.
“The Mass is really at the heart and the center of all that we do in our lives as disciples of Jesus,” said Bishop Matano, who in 2017 declared a “Year of the Eucharist” in conjunction with the diocese’s sesquicentennial celebration and wrote a pastoral letter on the sacrament.
A strong love of the Eucharist is likely what prompted many Catholics to return to Mass as soon as they were able last spring, Bishop Matano surmised. Simply put, the Eucharist remains the main reason all Catholics should be eager to participate in Mass in person, he added.
A key tenet of Catholicism is the teaching that the Eucharist is the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. The church teaches that the Eucharist is the very same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, cured the sick, died on the cross, and rose from the dead, Bishop Matano noted.
“If we believe all that the church teaches about who is Jesus, and the Eucharist is the same Jesus, then why would we ever be absent?” he asked.
The church also teaches that the invitation to participate in Mass and experience Christ through the Eucharist comes right from Jesus himself in the Gospels, Bishop Matano pointed out.
“It’s not any bishop or pope saying come to church. It’s our Lord himself who says unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” the bishop remarked. “And it’s that union with our Lord in the most holy Eucharist which gives us the strength and the motivation for all of the apostolic works of the church, so that those works can be sustained.”
The Eucharist also nourishes the union formed between a Catholic and Christ at baptism, so regular participation in the Mass helps Catholics strengthen and develop their relationship with Jesus, the bishop noted. Viewing livestreamed Masses when there was no other option kept this relationship alive, but it does not provide the best way to deepen it, Bishop Matano said. He likened viewing a livestreamed Mass to visiting with a loved one through the glass of a nursing-home window, an experience that became all too familiar to many during the last year.
“Is that the same as being with that person, present to that person, person-to-person? The livestreaming kept people connected, but the connection must now grow deeper, and it has to move beyond just a virtual connection into a real connection,” he said.
The temporary dispensation from the obligation to participate in Sunday Mass has now been lifted. In announcing this change, the bishops of the upstate dioceses of Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Rochester and Syracuse wrote in their May 23, 2021, statement: “Today, with vaccination rates rising, infection numbers across the state are falling and we are seeing the reopening of every sector of society, including businesses, restaurants and sporting events. Now it is also time to return to Sunday Mass. … The obligation to attend Sunday Mass now resumes, effective the weekend of June 5-6, 2021, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ in our dioceses.”
Yet Catholics should not view attendance at Mass simply as an obligation, Bishop Matano said. Participating in Mass should not be seen as a burden, but rather as a blessing and an extraordinary opportunity to be with the Lord, he said.
“When people in marriage love one another, they love one another not because of an obligation, but because this is their whole persona. This is how they are living their vocation,” he said. “Whatever our vocation in life might be, if we do it only out of obligation, it takes away that feeling of satisfaction.”
However, Bishop Matano acknowledged that people who have serious health issues or are caregivers for those with health concerns should continue to use prudential judgement in following precautions necessary to safeguard their own health and that of those for whom they care.
“They should be cautious about where they go, not only to Mass, but in any situation,” Bishop Matano said. “But if we are able to be among the community of faith and we don’t have any serious health issues or responsibilities for those who are sick … then why would we not be present?”
Ongoing evangelization and catechesis may be necessary to help Catholics truly understand why they should be present at Mass, he added. Parents are the first and best catechists of their children, and they are responsible for introducing them to the person of Jesus, a duty they eventually share with catechists at their parishes.
But faith formation should not end once a child reaches adulthood, he said; ongoing catechesis is necessary to help Catholics understand “the importance of the Mass, the reality of the Eucharist and the experience of Jesus in the Eucharist,” Bishop Matano said.
The experience of living through a pandemic has taught us to appreciate many of the things we used to take for granted, including the ability to go to Mass and to receive the Eucharist, he said, noting that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.”
“This is really a plea for spiritual renewal, an opportunity as we begin — please God — to emerge from the pandemic, that we become a people of gratitude. The Lord has carried us through this very difficult point in history, and now we return to give thanks,” Bishop Matano said.