Should you go to Mass in a pandemic? 5 rules for discerning a hard question.

A woman wearing a protective mask prays during Mass at the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 12, 2020, after church officials relaxed restrictions imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Andres Martinez Casares, Reuters)

Editor's note: This piece was originally published in The Jesuit Post on July 13, 2020 under the headline “5 Rules for Discerning Whether to Go to Mass in a Pandemic America is the publisher of The Jesuit Post.

As many states have begun to open up and loosen restrictions on “non-essential” activities, many Catholics have been asking themselves: “Should I go to Sunday Mass?”

Without the pandemic, the answer is “Go to Mass,” of course! But the pandemic has made just leaving the house even riskier. Also, restrictions on how many people can attend Mass means you might take a seat from someone if you go. So it is worth taking this question seriously.

Of course, if you or someone you regularly interact with is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, I would encourage you to refrain from attending Mass in person. You can continue to follow along online, and you might consider praying the Liturgy of the Hours or rosary at home. In some cases, attending daily Mass could be less risky for vulnerable populations because of smaller assemblies than Sundays. The suggestions below are intended for those who could attend Mass without a substantially elevated risk to health.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola provides several “Rules for Discernment” or guidelines for determining whether a spiritual movement is from the good spirit of God or from the evil spirit.

Below is an application of some of those rules to the determination of whether to go to Mass if you live in a diocese where public Masses are being offered but the Sunday obligation is still suspended.

1. If you are in a good spiritual place and the desire is peaceful, go for it.

St. Ignatius observes that when our soul is on the right path, seeking God and avoiding sin, the good spirit will move us in a peaceful way, consoling us and gently encouraging us. If you have been doing well in your faith life and the desire to attend Mass is accompanied by calm and joy, that probably means it is a good idea.

If you are in a good spiritual state and the idea of attending Mass arises out of a scruple or agitation as though missing Mass would be wrong or sinful, this might be from the evil spirit who can even pose as a good angel. More prayer or spiritual conversation can help clear up your motivations, but a decision should never be made in desolation.

2. If you are in a not-so-good spiritual place and your conscience is pricking you, Mass might help.

The inverse of the above rule holds true as well. When we haven’t been our best selves, the good spirit’s suggestions will feel more unsettling. But it’s the good kind of unsettling: our conscience leading us to acknowledge our wrongs and turn back to God. Going to Mass could be part of your response. If you have sinned in a serious way, you might even consider trying to get to the sacrament of reconciliation if it’s available in a safe way.

3. If the idea struck you out of the blue, it might be from God.

St. Ignatius calls sudden, deeply joyful spiritual movements “consolation without prior cause.” He argues that the devil can lay traps for us, but only God can get right to our hearts. If you suddenly have a desire to attend Mass and it is accompanied by joyful feelings, St. Ignatius would say that it is God moving you directly.

4. Are you practicing patience and taking precautions? Or making excuses?

The restrictions on public activities and the dispensation of the obligation to attend Mass can be used as excuses for skipping. If you aren’t attending Mass on Sunday, how are you spending that time? If you spend your Sundays in self-indulgence rather than prayer, that is probably a sign that you should act against your baser tendencies and go to church.

On the other hand, you might be authentically acting out of fortitude and patience. Perhaps you are motivated by a desire to free up a spot for another person to attend Mass, or maybe you work in a high-risk environment like a hospital, and you don’t want to put others in danger. In these types of cases, you are offering up a sacrifice which pleases God.

5. Is your fervor self-motivated?

St. Ignatius warns against thinking of grace as our right, rather than as a freely given gift. We shouldn’t insist on attending Mass simply because it is our right to do so. We shouldn’t go to Mass because of some attachment to routine or a sense of normality. Those motivations are self-centered, and not God-centered. Rather, we should seek to have a genuine desire to draw closer to God.

We shouldn’t insist on attending Mass simply because it is our right to do so. We shouldn’t go to Mass because of some attachment to routine or a sense of normality.

If we think that the desire to go to Mass is our own and not itself a gift, we might take this temporary distance from the Eucharist as a lesson to grow in gratitude for God’s many gifts.

Conversely, if you have grown attached to watching a streaming Mass, selecting your favorite priest, enjoying the comforts of your own home, or (God forbid!) multitasking, you should probably “act against” the preference for streaming Mass and go to receive the Eucharist in person.

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At the end of the day, even in these trying times, God is working through both our consolations and desolations. Discerning whether or not to attend Sunday Mass is hopefully unique to this time, but Ignatius’s Rules of Discernment can be helpful in many situations.

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