Thomas Griffin 4/1/21 (For Catholic Exchange)
Pandemic restrictions impacted Christian worship during their holiest of weeks in March 2020, but those regulations have had continued negative consequences on the faith throughout the course of the last year or so. This is a pivotal issue because humanity truly runs the course established by religion because our worship determines our culture.
The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religare, which means to bind or tie and the word “culture” comes from the Latin word colere which means to tend or cultivate. Both of these words are completely wrapped up in the encounter of relationships. Culture is easier to understand as an endeavor in relations. Individuals make up families which make up neighborhoods, which make up towns, counties, regions, states, and countries. As the individual goes, so does the culture; what we bind or tie ourselves to determines what we will tend or cultivate. For the remnant of in-person worshippers they believe they must tie themselves to the real thing at their physical churches.
Most attendees of in-person worship over the past months have cited the strength of this truth as their answer for continuing to go. The vast majority of families have stopped attending on Sunday’s while most people who find themselves in the pews are single or middle-aged and married. Their kids have either given up on church or they or out of the house and are no longer in the grips of their parents’ agenda.
Regarding the Catholic Church, countless bishops across the globe issued statements back in March 2020 that remain intact today. Most, if not all, bishops state that they “dispense all Catholics in the territory of this diocese from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, until further notice.” Many leaders and Catholic personalities are calling for the Church to provide exactly what our obligation towards worship is in these unprecedented times which are becoming more and more safe despite COVID-19. The virtual is not the same as the physically present, but the numbers are not showing that at this moment.
For this reason, some bishops have removed the dispensation excusing Catholics from Sunday obligation to attend Mass. Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit removed the dispensation on March 13th while extending it to those who are elderly, women who are pregnant, healthcare workers, and those who are significantly fearful of contracting the virus at Mass. Here, the Church is employing personal responsibility while following the science in order to safeguard and promote the faith.
Most Catholics who are not attending Mass are not in the category of advanced age nor are they individuals with pre-existing conditions. They’re also, for the most part, not viewers of virtual Masses. The large portion of Catholics not attending don’t even know about the dispensation, they simply heard that churches closed down and that now “church on Sunday’s” is not “required.”
Nevertheless, at the end of April, the Pew Research Center found that 27% of Catholics claimed their faith grew stronger because of the coronavirus. Their place of worship had shut their doors, but they strongly felt that their faith had increased, in some way. This study made the important point that “Christians are more likely than other religious groups in this analysis to say their faith has grown stronger as a result of the pandemic.”
Without a doubt, this is directly affected by the bedrock truth of the Christian faith: that suffering is not meaningless because Jesus has suffered on the cross, died for us, and brought about new life as a result. However, if there was this increase in faith, where are all the Sunday worshippers? Gallup reports that overall Catholic Church membership has dropped by 20% over the span of the previous twenty years or so and their next polling (along with Pew Research and others) is estimated to have dropped even more dramatically due to recent factors affecting the culture and the family.
In fact, a Pew Research study from August noted that only 12% of adults attend in-person worship in the country. Of those who usually attend public worship several times a month, pre-COVID, about 33% of them attend Sunday services. There is no sense of urgency among the faithful even though we are told constantly that the pandemic could kill us or our loved ones.
For those who have never stopped going to worship at their churches, the alternative is not an option. For them, they cite the communal aspect of prayer, the intensity of worship, the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and the understanding that this is just too serious of an arena to give up on. Without faith, we are nothing, is their chorus and they plan on singing it strong no matter what the future brings for the country or for the church.
Thomas Griffin teaches at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife and son. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.
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