Kerry WeberMay 28, 2021
Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash

Mass this past Sunday at times felt a bit like a revival. The pastor, with great enthusiasm, announced to a socially distanced and masked crowd that these restrictions would soon end. Next weekend, he told us, the church will be back to full capacity and masks won’t be required. The congregation applauded as if inspired by the Holy Spirit. The altar servers and Eucharistic ministers would be returning, he continued, and the one-directional aisles and entrances the parish had instituted in the wake of Covid would be gone. “You can come in or out any door you want,” he cried. “You can come through the window if you want!” More enthusiastic applause followed.

The pastor paused. He then said that the CDC and the diocese still recommend masks for people who aren’t vaccinated. But he quickly stressed that it was an honor system and that no one would be checking vaccination cards at the door. My heart began to sink as I envisioned a scene that used to be just a typical Sunday morning, but which now felt like a liturgical free for all.

For Catholic adults and older teens who are vaccinated, these new guidelines offer a welcome return to normalcy. My husband and I have both received our shots, and if it was just the two of us, we would be excited as well. But as it is, we have a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old, and the new guidelines raise new concerns for our family during an already challenging year.

None of our children can be vaccinated. The older two are able to wear masks, and as far as I can tell, under the new guidelines they should continue to do so at Mass. The CDC still recommends masks and social distancing for unvaccinated kids attending many other group activities, like summer camp. But what are we supposed to do with our 10-month-old, who is too young to wear a mask or get vaccinated and has a tendency to chew on furniture?

The combination of a fully masked congregation, along with increased vaccination rates, meant that I was just beginning to think it might be safe to bring her along. But now I have concerns about bringing her to church and putting her in the middle of a crowd that—despite the honor system—inevitably will include unvaccinated, unmasked adults. In my experience, vaccine hesitancy and resistance to mask-wearing are often closely correlated. And statistically speaking, it is likely that some percentage of the crowd will be unvaccinated.

A survey this spring found that 31 percent of white Catholics are either hesitant to get the vaccine or say they will not get it. Among Hispanic Catholics, that number rises to 44 percent. For an outdoor service or a masked or socially distanced one, this would be less concerning, but indoor worship services have long been considered high-risk activities for unvaccinated people, in part because of the aerosols formed by singing, the movement of people throughout the church and the often poor ventilation.

There is just no way I can see myself bringing my unvaccinated, unmasked 10-month-old to Mass.

Our family’s most recent attempt at in-person Sunday Mass was the first time we’d attended in person for some time. It involved my husband and our 5-year-old attending the 8 a.m. Mass, while I went at 10 a.m. with our 3-year-old. We felt that splitting up was the only way to keep our older two safely masked and our youngest safe at home. But we hoped that we might all attend together soon. Now, given the loosening of restrictions, there is just no way I can see myself bringing my unvaccinated, unmasked 10-month-old to Mass to walk her through the aerosol aftereffects of “Be Not Afraid.”

But maybe the risk will be less than I imagine it to be? The thing is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t issued much useful guidance for this young demographic, and many parents are wondering what to do in mixed (age, vaccination status) and unmasked groups. Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University, included in her popular newsletter for parents “a direct plea to the C.D.C. on behalf of the many parents” who have written to her asking for guidance: “Could you please, please provide some more guidance for those of us with kids under 12, who cannot be vaccinated? And especially for those with kids under 2?” She followed this with a more detailed request for clarity for parents in The Atlantic.

In the meantime, I think there is plenty the church can do locally. I would love to see some creative thinking among bishops and diocesan officials about what it means to acknowledge the new C.D.C. guidelines while also recognizing they likely won’t be followed by all in attendance, and that they do not apply to the youngest parishioners.

For example, some have suggested that parishes could continue to have one Mass each weekend at which masks continue to be strictly required. Even without social distancing, this could make many people feel significantly more comfortable. And the benefits would not just be for children under 2 or their worried parents, but also for immunocompromised people, people with high anxiety and even people who are unvaccinated and willing to follow the C.D.C. guidelines for staying masked but less willing to be the only person in the pew wearing one.

But maybe the risk will be less than I imagine it to be?

Alternatively, parishes with the space and weather to do so could offer one of the weekend Masses outside, no masks required. At the very least, parishes could continue to offer live-streamed services so that family members who still need to stay home could participate in the same Mass as those attending in person. I am encouraged by the fact that, at least for the time being, many parishes seem to be committed to continuing to offer this option.

I am sure there are some who would argue that leaving the 10-month-old at home is best for everyone else, too. And at the moment she’s too young to mind either way. But leaving her behind means splitting up the family Mass schedule, and this has a spiritual impact, too. It is harder to establish our family as a part of a larger spiritual community when we can’t actually join that community to worship.

We miss that time all together in church on Sunday morning. It breaks my heart that our family has not attended Mass together in person since my youngest child’s birth. If we have to wait until she is old enough to wear a mask, it will extend that streak to more than two years. I truly look forward to the day that I can feel confident we can safely attend Mass again as a family, as chaotic and stressful as it sometimes was to corral the kids, even pre-pandemic. Hopefully that day is sooner than I think. And when it does arrive, we will enthusiastically applaud.

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