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Susan Bigelow ReynoldsFebruary 15, 2021

The shutdowns in the United States—of businesses, restaurants, schools, churches—began one year ago this March. We asked 14 experts to reflect on the biggest lessons from the past year in the hope that they might help us find a better way forward. You can read the rest of the series here.

After the breathtaking human toll of Covid-19, one of the pandemic’s greatest casualties has been ritual. The pandemic has disrupted our ability to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. Weddings have been scaled back, baptisms and first Communions delayed. Chaplains robed in sterile suits administer last sacraments to the dying while loved ones join in through the antiseptic glow of a screen. Rather than deeply embodied spaces of communal mourning, funerals and burial rites now feel almost provisional. This is to say nothing of the other rituals we’ve missed: graduations, birthday parties, school picture days, work commutes. From rites of passage to the little practices that order our days, the pandemic has corroded our sense of time and meaning.

Ritual is an act of survival. In moments of grief and uncertainty, we return to ritual because it offers us a way of enfolding our suffering into the life and memory of our community. In such moments, ritual’s formulaic nature becomes its greatest asset: It is effective precisely because we do not need to invent it ourselves. We know what to do, what to say, where to stand, how to be. Rituals are the language of community. To be deprived of ritual during a moment of pain is to be deprived, in a real way, of solidarity and hope we need to envision the future.

The pandemic has wrought disproportionate havoc on communities of color and on the elderly, poor and medically vulnerable. As parishes labor to re-envision liturgical participation, they must work determinedly to ensure that adaptations do not reinscribe this same racism, ageism, classism and ableism. From parking lot liturgy to drive-through confession, parishes have learned that inclusivity in ritual requires fearless creativity—a virtue that, I pray, continues to shape parish life long after Covid-19 becomes a distant memory.

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