In defense of people-watching after Communion

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash.

I have a very Catholic confession to make. After receiving the Eucharist, which ought to be the peak moment of my week, when I should be praying on my knees for Christ’s mercy, I prefer to lightly zone out while watching everyone else receive Communion. When I catch myself, I will sometimes send a flowery prayer of thanksgiving upward for the diversity and unity inside my parish (as if God didn’t hear me judging that woman’s shoe choice when she came down the aisle a second ago. Four inch heels, at the 9 a.m.? Bold...). Thankfully, God uses even the sloppy Mass habits of us cradle-Catholics to teach us about his glory. After months of Zoom liturgies, I am beginning to think people-watching at Mass can itself be an opportunity for deeper communion.

On a recent Sunday, at my new parish in Washington, D.C., which strictly enforces mask-wearing and sanitizing, I noticed something new and beautiful during the celebration of the Eucharist. The procession was slower, of course, because everyone was maintaining more space between themselves and the person ahead of them in line. It looked markedly different from the usual I-95 10-car pile-up that could crowd bigger churches pre-Covid. What really moved me, though, was that communicants received the body of Christ with much more intention and deliberation than I was used to seeing pre-pandemic. Turning away from the priest after saying amen, communicants stepped to the side and took off their mask to receive the Eucharist. Nearly everyone automatically faced the tabernacle to do so, out of reverence or maybe concern about breathing on the people in the front row. 

The clear analogy of approaching the presence of Christ in the tabernacle, showing your true face and offering him your trust brought me to tears in Mass.

During this pandemic, we have shrunk our social groups to only our closest friends and family members. Even when we meet friends at parks or on sidewalks, it is an act of great intimacy and trust to take off your mask. In our houses of worship, songs are muted behind cloths, and I cannot see anyone else’s face. Only when we receive the Eucharist do we dare to take our mask off, to greet Christ intimately. The clear analogy of approaching the presence of Christ in the tabernacle, showing your true face and offering him your trust brought me to tears in Mass.

I am new to my current parish. Other than the priests, who know me as the young person who bothers them for a quick confession after weekday Mass, I do not know any of my fellow parishioners, and I sit alone in a socially distanced pew. Watching people remove their masks one by one to receive our daily bread reminded me that I am deeply connected with these strangers. I will also never be able to know or care for them the same way that Christ cares for each of us. Even if the church was filled to the brim with my closest friends and family members, people whose faces I have memorized, my knowledge of them would pale in comparison to the complete knowledge that Christ has when they approach his presence. 

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Consider what this moment of relief in showing our true faces to God, no masks and nowhere left to hide, means to all of us in this turbulent time.

At the height of the lockdown in March and April, I felt starved for the bread and wine. I would sit glumly on a Zoom call with my college friends, everyone feeling claustrophobic in their respective childhood bedrooms, and talk about how joyful and exciting it would be to go back to Mass. It would feel like Christmas or New Year’s, we said. But as the weeks of pandemic dragged on, Mass came back the same way that shopping malls and happy hours did, quietly and with hints of guilt. Even when churches reopened, they didn’t look or feel the same. No congregating in crowded narthexes. No coffee and doughnuts in the parish hall. I now feel starved for that humdrum of community and support. 

Which is why I am throwing away my Catholic guilt about people-watching at Mass. I am thrilled to be at the Eucharist, seeing my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I was sick of watching the holy transubstantiation from a laptop in my living room. I encourage you to joyfully receive your piece of the eternal banquet and then respectfully watch while the other celebrants receive their share, no more and no less than yours. Mentally cheer them on and lift them up in petitionary prayer. Reflect on this intimacy and commonality you share with complete strangers. Consider what this moment of relief in showing our true faces to God, no masks and nowhere left to hide, means to all of us in this turbulent time. Please know that until the day when I can meet you all at a parish picnic, I will be praying for you all from my socially-distanced pew. 

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