We have been going to in-person Mass with our four children since May. I have had a lot of other people ask us how we do this, if we feel safe, if it’s been difficult, etc. Now, everyone’s risk factors are different and no one person can decide for another person whether in-person Mass is a safe place to be. However, I do think that some people are afraid of going back to Mass— especially if they have children— simply because of the unknowns. I hope to dispel some of those unknowns by writing this. Because of a recent move to a rural area, we have attended all sorts of parishes spanning multiple states. We have been to parishes that require masks and parishes that don’t. We have been to parishes that give communion on the tongue and parishes that give communion on the hands in the parking lot through a car window. So I consider myself a little bit of an expert on Covid-era Mass with kids. Here are my general suggestions:
- You are in charge of yourself and your children. You can leave if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. You can choose to sit very far away from people. You can choose not to receive communion. There is a reason for the dispensation. If you’re thinking about going to in-person Mass, but worried you’ll change your mind in the process, relax, and know there’s no pressure.
- Remember that there were viruses before Covid. And the churches did almost nothing about them. If your main concern is your own children, remember how dangerous the flu can be for children. I remember when my third child was born in December during one of the worst flu seasons. We still went to Mass. But we did NOT shake hands, we sat far away from people, and we left before our children could try to socialize . I am also immunocompromised, so I’ve always been a little stressed about things like the sign of peace. Given these experiences, in some ways, I feel less germ-exposed going into churches during the upcoming winter months with the new protocols than I did before Covid. I completely recognize that Covid is more dangerous than the flu for many people. My only point is that going to a crowded church has always been a contagion risk, especially for vulnerable people. But never before have the churches taken such efforts to mitigate those risks as they are doing now.
- Most churches do not expect your baby or toddler to wear a mask. I’ve seen variations between “7 and up,” “10 and up,” or no particular age— but I’ve never seen a baby in a mask. And I’ve never gotten any sign that anyone expects mine to wear one.
- If your church is closed or makes you uncomfortable you can go somewhere else. Most parish websites or Facebook pages will outline for you their guidelines and restrictions. Some are extremely cautious (you don’t even have to leave your car.) Some are not very cautious (mostly the case for very rural, small parishes.) All churches I’ve been to require pew spacing. We have driven all over the place for Mass. Some of these drives have been quite long. Occasionally, we have showed up at a church only to find a sign on the door that someone has been exposed and Mass has been cancelled (key point— check the parish Facebook page right before leaving the house!) But these trips have only deepened our appreciation for the churches and they’ve usually involved other fun adventures and memories for our family.
- Not everyone is judging your family. The first time you go, you’ll feel that way. But then you realize that masks make it hard to see peoples’ smiles and that other people are nervous too. As long as you are keeping your kids far away from other people you don’t need to worry.
- Virtual Mass is not the same as in person Mass and children, especially, know this. Now, it’s a wonderful thing that virtual Mass DOES exist for those who need it and, again, I’m NOT saying that anyone in particular ought to go in person. But children do know the difference. They know the sensations they feel in church. I’ll never forget my two year old crying that he couldn’t go “inside the Mass.” “Is it because the coronavirus is in there?” He started to ask. And it was a chilling question. I’d rather him remember, first, that Jesus is in there.
- Open churches have never been and will never be a guarantee. Keep in mind that this virus could go on indefinitely. At first we thought we would be back in the pews after two weeks. Then it was Easter. Then it was Pentecost. Now Pentecost has long past and the pews are still quite empty. The situation may only get worse in the Winter months. One of the most important things I learned during all of this is that every day we get the opportunity to go inside a church is a blessing. It could be taken from us at any time. So, if you can, seize the opportunity.
- Most of all, don’t get discouraged. When this all first hit, it seemed every Catholic developed a sudden and deep longing for the sacraments. I remember the excitement over the first in-person Masses at Pentecost. We expected full pews, people having life changing experiences as they went up for Communion. It wasn’t quite like that. The restrictions have made things colder. People are nervous. Many choir lofts are silent. It’s easy to wonder if it really does make that big of a difference. But take heart. These are trying times. And trying times require faith. It wouldn’t be faith if it were easy. And there are beautiful moments, still. You’ll form a bond with the other Mass goers, even if you never speak to them. You’ll meet new people. Your unruly children will have little spurts of devotion and inspiration. You’ll have somewhere to go and something to structure your days and weeks around in a time that can feel rather isolating and unstructured. You’ll be surprised by unexpected wonders. You’ll feel the power of the sacraments when you least expect it. And if you persist, you’ll remember why it’s worth it.