Returning to Mass?

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, churches across South Africa – and the world – were shut. The bishops lifted the obligation to attend Sunday mass. Now that the lockdown restrictions have eased and places of worship have reopened, are people returning to Sunday mass?

A poll, conducted by the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate based in Washington DC, reported that 36% of young Catholics said that they did not intend to return to mass regularly. In early September the Dublin-based Iona Institute for Religion and Society found that just 27% of people were regularly attending mass in Ireland. Of that 27%, only 36% said they returned to mass.

These are all Western statistics, so I informally asked a few priests what their experience has been since the reopening of places of worship in South Africa. This varied. One common response I heard was that numbers were not what they initially thought they would be but, slowly, over a few weeks, are growing. One priest, in a township, said he wondered if people would ever return in the same numbers as before. He was clearly perturbed and had been thinking about this. Another told me that his parish had a good rate of return.

There may be several reasons why people have decided not to physically return to public worship. The biggest, naturally, is fear of being infected by the virus. In recent weeks there has been a steady rise in infections.

However, there may be more challenging reasons too. This period of enforced absence has given people time to think critically about what they care about and what they need. Many have found themselves grappling with the meaning of life and their purpose. Some people are finding direction in other spaces. One person remarked that during the lockdown, while looking for spiritual food, they realised how, for so long, they had put up with mediocrity at their local parish. “I got little,” they said. “I choose not to return.”

Other reasons have been cited too. The availability of mass online means that people have been able to choose where to ‘attend’ mass. People have chosen places where they are being fed. One person said that she had decided to keep worshipping online even though she cannot receive communion. She feels that she is truly fed by her online participation rather than her physical presence at a local church. This observation opens up a whole new exploration: that of people who believe in God but do not feel like they belong in the structure that they experience at the moment. 

Whatever way one approaches this, we cannot escape the fact that the pandemic has had, and will continue to have, a far-reaching effect on the Church. It raises interesting questions and challenges for the Church: What needs to change now? Do we embrace a hybrid way of worship – physically and online – as the way forward? Can we create spaces to listen to people’s experience of finding direction in other places and what can we learn from that? Is there a mediocrity in our parishes that this pandemic challenges us to address? How do we now understand ‘Sunday obligation’?

COVID-19 has forced many people (and the Church) to make decisions they may not have made before. What are the consequences of those decisions that we now have to face and live with?

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
See more from Russell Pollitt SJ
1 Comment
  • DZ
    Posted at 18:23h, 01 Nov

    I live in the US. I appreciate the sermons given at the Jesuit institute of SA more than those I get at home. I will probably continue to listen to them even after I return to in person masses.
    I live in an area with high COVID infections and am reluctant to return to church, especially since some people seem convinced that God will protect them from the virus even though they behave irresponsibly. I do not believe that as I believe God gave us brains for a reason and I prefer to use mine. Also, i do not want to be sitting in an enclosed public space for an hour or more with a possibly infected person who is not willing to take the appropriate precautions despite the pleadings of the medical and scientific professions.

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