At home with the masses
I’m a church-every-Sunday kind of person. When I travel, I look up local Mass times. I know where to go if I need Mass at an awkward time; like really early (7:30am St Francis Xavier’s) or really late (8pm St Augustine’s). My family might not be the best-dressed or the most well-behaved, but we turn up, and, being two adults and six children, we help make the numbers. If I do miss Mass for some reason, I feel out-of-sorts all week.
So, when COVID-19 caused all churches to shut and public Masses to cease, it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Things just got real.
It’s inspiring how quickly people mobilised to meet this need. Parishes scrambled to grapple with videoconference and livestream technology. In the early days, before further restrictions made it impossible, some churches even offered car park adoration and drive-thru confession.
My younger brother and his housemates, a group of gifted musicians, participated in the Salesian’s “Church at Home” ministry. These are live videos of ordinary Catholics sharing prayer liturgies in their own homes. St Mary Mazzarello, one of the order’s founding saints, was sometimes too sick to attend Mass. Instead, she would pray in her attic, opening her window to hear people going to church. I loved the everyday sacredness in seeing this share-house living room transformed by fellowship and prayer. I couldn’t hug my brother, not for months, but I could pray with him.
St Benedict’s Parish, Burwood live-streams their Masses on YouTube. As I write this, we still attend their church from our living room on Sundays. My favourite part of the experience (apart from the comfy couches) is that it is live. I am not inside the church, but I know that the consecration is happening, a few kilometres away, at the same time as I watch it.
When we come to our television to attend Mass and pray, the TV area becomes a sacred space. I’ve started to pay more attention to keeping the area tidy so I don’t spend the whole of the First Reading compiling a mental to-do list: (“That dust must be two centimetres thick!”, “I can see five different shoes under that couch. None of them match up”, “Why is there a toy Spider-Man between the TV and the bookcase?”)
I cleared a space in the cabinet under the TV and filled it with a small footstool, cloth, and some candles and crosses. It has become my eight-year-old daughter’s favourite job to dress the footstool before Mass.
On the morning of Palm Sunday, I messaged a bunch of my friends to see if they were going to Mass at St Benedict’s “with me”. They sent back photos of their lounge rooms decorated with palm leaves the kids had fetched from the back yard. At the sign of peace, my phone pinged with messages from friends and family saying, “Peace be with you”.
On social media, I’ve read stories of priests who have printed off photos of their parishioners and stuck them to the pews to remind them of the people they are saying Mass for. I’ve also read reports of parishioners complaining that somebody else’s photograph was sitting in ‘their spot’! I’ve considered sending photos of my family to our PP. He could put one of my four-year-olds lying on the floor and the other interfering with the sound equipment. Plus, I could provide sound grabs for the complete experience: (“Mass is BUMBY!”, “I need to go to the TOILET! I’m going to WET MY PANTS!”, “Why is Father wearing a dress?”, “When will it be over?”, “Is that a man or a lady?”).
Holy Week was when things got really strange. What’s Holy Week without lots of church? We attended the Good Friday solemn service at St Benedict’s. I was amazed to see that it received fourteen thousand views on YouTube! Not since World Youth Day have I been at such a crowded service, and yet I had plenty of room!
On Saturday night, we watched the Easter Vigil Mass at the cathedral on Channel 31, a community-access station. It was quite beautiful. The kids in their pyjamas wrapped in blankets, the cathedral all dark, lit only by candles. We had celebrated Mass in our living room several times, and we’d become quite good at it. There were cushions laid out as kneelers, a collection of bells and shakers waiting in readiness for the Gloria and Alleluia, and a carefully prepared prayer table.
A lot happens at the start of a vigil Mass, so by the time we got to the homily, we were well settled in. I’m sure the Archbishop of Melbourne put a lot of work into his sermon. People would be watching from all over the city after all. Unfortunately, just as he started talking, there were some technical glitches with the live stream and it became unintelligible. Channel 31 did what they usually do when a program is misbehaving and threw to a commercial, then another, then a clip from the televisual archives’ society of an obscure undergraduate comedy from South Australia.
They were hosting a fake call-in show. Just as they answered a call from “Peter from Glenelg”, it cut back to the live stream of Archbishop Peter Comensoli’s face. But the stream still wasn’t fixed, so we got to see more antics from the young men in fake beards and funny wigs. By the time it all got sorted out, and we’d laughed until we were spent, the homily was over and we were on to the Litany of the Saints.
Sometimes I suspect the Lord our God has a very cheeky sense of humour!
I do miss Holy Communion. I’ll probably burst into tears when I finally receive the Eucharist again. It’s going to be really embarrassing. But I also believe that ours is a loving God who would not allow his children to go hungry. Whether it be from the comfort of shared prayer, the trust in spiritual communion, or the surprise of a much-needed laugh, we will find food for the journey, nourishment for the soul, and the strength to hibernate another day.