Parishioner prays during Mass at a San Diego synod in 2016 — its first in 40 years. Photo by Chris Stone

Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior (Zeph. 3:16–17)
 
“It’s the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the closing of the Year of Saint Joseph,” my roommate told me when she invited me to attend Mass with her

In the Diocese of San Diego, the bishop lifted the general dispensation for the Sunday and holy day Mass obligation, put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, on July 1. Early reports were that Bishop Robert McElroy had been intending to leave that dispensation in place for his diocese until the First Sunday of Advent.

But in June, within a couple of weeks of the dispensation being lifted in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, of which San Diego is a suffragan diocese, McElroy evidently (cough) changed his mind (cough) and pulled back the date to fall more in line with Los Angeles.

I’d been well and truly bummed by that turn of events for several reasons. I hadn’t been attending Mass regularly for a couple of years before the pandemic, going to confession for missing Mass more often than I’d been going to Mass.

That may sound strange—how can she get herself to confession but not to Mass? At the time though, I was employed at Catholic Answers and confession was just a walk down the hall to the chaplain’s office. As bad as the pandemic has been, the one silver lining was that the dispensation meant I wasn’t tortured by religious scruples/Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder symptoms every time I chose not to go to Mass on Sundays and holy days.

My reasons for not attending Mass originally had nothing to do with introversion. By the time I left my job as a professional apologist, I was pretty much becoming burned out altogether on being Catholic. Then there was the fact that the isolation and fear imposed by the pandemic transformed my deep social anxiety into a mild to moderate case of agoraphobia.

And it certainly didn’t help that all of the Catholics clamoring for churches to open and Mass restrictions to be lifted were the very people largely responsible for keeping the pandemic ongoing. I had no desire to be passing the peace with unmasked, unvaccinated Catholics, who I believe share some responsibility for COVID-19’s high death toll.

So I was relieved when a priest friend, who ministers in my diocese, sent me a letter Bishop McElroy had distributed to his priests. The bishop left in place wide latitude for individuals to continue to be automatically exempt from the Sunday/holy day obligation (meaning that they didn’t need their pastor to approve an exemption).

Included as reasons for individual exemption were “illness, other physical vulnerabilities, apprehensions about safety, and fears of social interaction.” It sounded to me that McElroy was essentially saying, “If you decide you need to stay home from Mass, go for it” — without coming right out and directly saying that.

Which would have been cool but for the whole scruples/OCD thing. With the general dispensation, it was easy to feel confident that I had just reason not to attend Mass. Once it was on me to determine my feelings about going to Mass, doubts started creeping in.

“Is it really fear of social interaction, Michelle, or do you simply not want to go to Mass?” I started up again in torturing myself with that question, and once again started going to confession to confess not going to Mass more often than I’ve been going to Mass. Now that I can’t just walk down the hall to the chaplain’s office, I can’t even comfort myself with the reassurance that my reluctance isn’t about going to church.

I’ve gone to Mass maybe a couple of times this year, usually as a result of Catholic guilt. Once was for the Holy Spirit’s birthday (otherwise known as Pentecost). And this past week I went for the Immaculate Conception.

Sitting in Mass, mask in place, surrounded by a lot of unmasked people, I tried to assess how I was feeling.

I realized I felt … nothing. I murmured some of the responses behind my mask. I tuned out the homily, tuned into a story in my head that I’ve been working on, stood when I was supposed to, otherwise ignored the proceedings.

This wasn’t good. I started to wonder if I still believed in this whole Catholic thing. If I didn’t, what the hell was I doing here?

Communion time came. I went up to receive the Eucharist for the first time in six months. I wish I could say I felt something then. Instead, I just noted apathetically that I’d gotten used to receiving Communion in the hand. For nearly 25 years, I’d almost always received Communion on the tongue. Now, since the pandemic, allowing an EMHC to put the host on my tongue just seemed icky to me. I didn’t bother to check how others were receiving. I accepted the host in my hand, popped it into my mouth, and walked on.

I did do a few pro forma prayers of thanksgiving back at the pew, but decided to visit the restroom before the closing announcements. As I pushed open the glass door to the foyer of the church, I noticed an EMHC heading my way with a ciborium in her hands. She was returning from distributing Communion to the choir in the loft.

Without even thinking about it, I held the door open for her, my eyes on the ciborium in her hands. She thanked me as she walked past, hands steady on the ciborium. I didn’t want her to have to shift her grip to open the door one-handed. Not because she wasn’t fully capable of opening the door for herself….

I held the door open for Jesus.

When I realized that, something settled in me. I want to remain Catholic. I want to believe. All the guilt over whether I go to Mass often enough, all the anger and anxiety about interacting with other Catholics — people I wouldn’t share s’mores with around a campfire but have to gather together with every Sunday and holy day. The guilt and the misanthropy were what had been pulling me away from the Church.

Jesus was still here. Jesus needed me, if briefly, to hold open the door for him. Knowing that meant I still believed that Jesus was present in the Eucharist, that I could encounter him when I go to Mass.

I may not yet be ready to return to Mass on a regular basis. But I have hope that when I am ready I’ll find Jesus there — holding open the door for me.

From 2003 to 2020, Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers in the Diocese of San Diego, answering questions about the Catholic faith. She has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is at Authory. This essay originally was posted Dec. 9 — before recent diocesan advice on masking — on Patheos.com under the title “Devotional: Holding the Door for Jesus.” Arnold attended Mass Dec. 8 at Santa Sophia in Spring Valley. She didn’t attend Christmas Mass, but did go to Mass on Dec. 26 at Mission San Diego de Alcala.

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