When I sat down last year to watch a grainy live-streamed Easter Mass from my family’s crowded couch, I was pretty miserable. Normally the Easter Vigil leads me to more joy than even Christmas. Yet, last year everything seemed so wrong, empty and far away: just a shabby little church with orange carpets.
While I was surrounded by my family, Fr. Thomas More Barba was offering Mass alone, facing an empty church and a laptop webcam on a pile of Christmas decoration boxes. That, he said, was the weirdest moment.
As the University of Dallas’ chaplain at the Church of the Incarnation, Barba had the unenviable task of conveying the church’s physical reality to people he was not allowed to approach.
“In one way this is not unprecedented. The Church has been flexible before,” he said.
However, difficulties remain. “The Church holds to a form of participation that involves the body. You can’t do confessions using any sort of amplifier [such as a cell phone], even if you’re in a line of sight.”
Because of the physicality of sacraments, the common administration of Mass and confessions became hugely complicated. For confessions, social distancing and Safe Environment visibility protocols, as well as county, university and diocesan guidelines had to be enforced while simultaneously maintaining privacy and availability. For Masses, seating, crowdflow and proper facial mask wearing all required care, clarification, courtesy and constant regulation.
In addition to confusion over some guidelines, Barba said that some people have deliberately refused to follow the rules during Mass, which he believes is an inappropriate time and place to voice disagreement.
“The church is not supposed to be a place of disharmony and discord,” said Barba. “When there is a legitimate authority―the bishop―making this expectation known clearly, I think we should obey.”
Besides the issue of church discipline, Barba pointed out that arguing during Mass only causes stress and distraction from the liturgy, especially for the priest and volunteers responsible for enforcement.
This perspective was helpful to me, as many COVID-19 rules make me impatient and downright grumpy.
Another problem is the administration of sacraments to students actively in quarantine. The priests who serve UD all live in vulnerable communities, making sacramental visits to those in quarantine nearly impossible. At the beginning of this semester, however, senior biology major Lisa Archuleta volunteered to bring the Eucharist to students in isolation.
After testing positive for COVID-19, Bryan Box, a junior business major, requested to receive confession rather than communion, believing it was the only sacrament available to the actively sick. Box was willing to do whatever it took to receive the sacrament without endangering his confessor.
A priest from Opus Dei met him in an empty soccer field. “I wasn’t verbatim shouting, but I was definitely using a louder than usual voice,” said Box. “It was really good, but really humbling because [I] had to have faith that even if someone had overheard, in that moment, my sins were forgiven. It was joyful, to say the least.”
When I expressed my fear that COVID-19 regulations will cause a falling away among nominal Catholics, I realized this concern was widespread. But Barba has also watched the church fill back up, and seen a hunger for the sacraments.
Box says that’s already happening at his home parish. “They’re coming back in full force and their will for God is stronger than ever.”