Breaking the Virtual Church Habit
When the church doors are open again for public Masses, will people be back in the pews?
Years ago, before we had children, long before we were Catholic, and for reasons I don’t remember, my wife, Dottie, and I skipped church. On Saturday evening we simply decided not to go. Instead we slept in. When we finally got up, she baked muffins while I made coffee. The paper was at the front door by then and we sat on our family room floor reading the paper, drinking coffee, eating fresh-baked muffins and listening to “The Sounds of Sinatra” on the radio.
Then we showered, dressed, and hopped into the car to meet my parents (who did go to church) for brunch. After a leisurely brunch we stopped at the mall and by 3:00 we were headed home. “This is why people don’t go to church,” I remember saying, “It’s not that they don’t believe or that they don’t like church. It’s that a church-free Sunday is so relaxing and restful.”
Years later I pastored a Presbyterian church in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s one of the least-churched places in America. Why? Wineries, malls, fabulous restaurants, beautiful weather, the beaches near Santa Cruz, windsurfing and sailing on the bay, hiking trails in the coastal mountains, skiing in the Sierras — oh, and the 49ers as in, “Pastor, if the 49ers are playing on the East Coast, don’t expect me at church.” Why would anyone waste Sunday morning by going to church?
I thought about this last Sunday. We unintentionally overslept and plopped down in front of my wife’s laptop in pajamas and bathrobes to watch Mass from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. The church is beautiful, Mass was elegant and dignified, and Monsignor Henry Breier is a fine preacher. With no one to receive Holy Communion, from the Entrance Antiphon to Regina Caeli the service lasted about 45 minutes.
We were dressed and hiking in nearby Sinks Canyon by 11 a.m. on a bright Wyoming day. Which is to say that virtual Mass from some time zone east of home began a very relaxing and enjoyable Sunday.
It’s been a long time since most of us been to church. The good news is the sacramental drought will be over soon. The bad news is that studies indicate that while it takes between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit, “on average, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.”
We’ve been spending Sundays at home and missing weekday Masses for somewhere in the neighborhood of 66 days. In the next few weeks, when the doors are open again, will we be back in the pews?
The great hope is that the COVID-19 scare brings the fragility of life home to many who conveniently forgot and that this will increase religious faith and participation. But I have to wonder whether instead we’ve formed a bad habit.
After all, with TV or the internet, we’re still “going” to church. Many (myself not included) have discovered preaching that is far better than what they get in their home parishes. And we’re spiritually communing with Christ and presumably the Body of Christ without the risks of hacking pew-mates and their snotty kids.
Why not just go with this new, safe habit?
The short answer is that, unlike many of our contemporaries, we’re not Gnostics. The real you is not a spirit that happens, at this point in time, to inhabit a body and will one day be free of it. The real you is body and soul — the material and the spiritual — inextricably connected together. Yes, at death they separate, but as Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Your body will rise again forever.
Spiritually participating in virtual church is not the same as physically attending Mass. Spiritual communion with Christ, while good and valid, is not sacramental communion with Christ. Because we are embodied beings, gathering together, singing, smelling the incense, hearing the sermon live, standing, sitting, kneeling, and tasting the bread and wine makes all the difference.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Consider two applications of his words:
(1) Once the churches open, be there — regardless of how convenient the virtual church habit has become.
(2) Look around. Who’s missing? Have the godly audacity to encourage them in love, good works and going physically to Mass.
James Tonkowich writes from Lander, Wyoming. He is the director of distance learning at Wyoming Catholic College.