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Renée Schafer Horton: Getting back to church

Renée Schafer Horton: Getting back to church

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

When social distancing rules were implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19, religious communities across the country launched virtual worship services. According to reporting in the Christian Science Monitor, more than 80% of U.S. churches, mosques and synagogues stopped meeting in person by the end of March, including all Catholic parishes.

Catholic bishops were alternatively lauded and condemned for helping flatten the curve by moving Sunday Mass to YouTube.

Supporters understood the need to keep the Body of Christ in the Eucharist from becoming a death machine for the body of Christ in the pews, but critics complained the faithful needed Mass to survive pandemic-related stress. The most extreme detractors claimed the bishops were kowtowing to Caesar instead of fighting what they believed were efforts to restrict the free exercise of religion.

Let me be clear: Christians claiming this as a “freedom of religion” issue are wrong. One of Christianity’s primary tenets is to love your neighbor, and right now loving your neighbor means staying away from him.

But going into the second month of COVID-19 distancing, I find myself empathizing more with the folks pleading to pray together. While worship-at-a-distance has been beneficial in certain ways — enjoying my preferred style of Mass music by “attending” Mass in another city or sampling sermons by logging into Parish A one Sunday and Parish B the next — it isn’t fabulous.

I long to receive communion, to hold hands with other parishioners while praying of the Our Father, to hear people standing just inches away from me join in begging Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. I miss my tribe, I miss pint-sized altar servers and, primarily, I miss the five-senses experience of an in-person Mass. Try as I may, I can’t smell incense through my computer screen or feel a holy water blessing virtually.

In times of crisis, believers get hope and strength from the ritual of communal worship, and many Catholics get particular strength from receiving the Eucharist. Those Catholics are wondering, perhaps correctly, that if we’re allowed to get a drive-through coffee or a curb-side meal, why we can’t at least get drive-through communion?

"We're tough as saguaros," editorial cartoonist David Fitzsimmons says. He says he saw a video made for the people of Detroit and became inspired to do his own take for Tucson.

Next door in New Mexico, Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces argued something similar in writing a letter to his priests saying he was concerned about an increase in alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic abuse brought on by the quarantine. Catholics, he wrote, needed the hope brought from in-person liturgy and especially reception of communion. He started celebrating Mass from a stage located in front of the cathedral on April 15 and allows Eucharist to be distributed by masked and gloved ministers who walk to cars that are parked in every other space in the cathedral parking lot.

Back here in Tucson, there have been drive-by blessings and drive-through confessions, but Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger has rightly held a firm line against distribution of communion. It is just too much of a risk and that firm line will be held until at least May 15, following Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement that the closures of nonessential services and large gatherings such as worship services are extended that long. He asked for Arizonan’s patience, something Catholics consider a virtue we can never practice enough.

Even when we are allowed back in our parishes, it probably won’t be like before. If restaurants are considering enforcing some social distancing, religious leaders are probably contemplating the same for their communities, at least until we have a vaccine. So I have a feeling we will be missing “normal” for quite some time.

That said, I’m not sure we want to return to “normal” if that means doing what most of us do on any given day around any given experience: We take it for granted. We assume it will always be there, available simply because we want it, we “deserve” it, and it was available yesterday.

COVID-19 has shown us that we need to always, every day, appreciate what we have, and I think that’s probably a good thing. Or, in the case of Catholics appreciating the gifts of worshipping together and receiving Eucharist, it’s probably a God thing.

Renée Schafer Horton is a local writer, veteran journalist and cradle Catholic. Reach her at

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