2022’s Continuing COVID Conversation

COMMENTARY: In 2021, everybody saw that the football stadiums are as full as they used to be. The Catholic churches are not.

Priest celebrates the Mass amid the COVID pandemic.
Priest celebrates the Mass amid the COVID pandemic. (photo: Federico Magonio / Shutterstock)

The first year of the pandemic included a lot of disappointment in the shepherds from the flock. The second year of the pandemic has been marked more by disappointment on the part of the shepherds in the sheep.

The pandemic conversation among priests was different in 2021 than it was in 2020. It wasn’t happy a year ago, and it isn’t happy today. 

COVID conversations can be exhausting, generally because they are so repetitive. Yet that is our time and circumstance, and so we all talk about the pandemic and its impact rather more than we would like.

In the early months of the pandemic, the conversations focused on what the shepherds were doing. Was it right to suspend Masses and close the confessionals? Were bishops too compliant with state directives? Were they getting the balance right between care for the common good and fundamental freedoms? 

Was the local pastor lazy? Did he lock the church, turn off the lights and suspend all activity? Was the local pastor admirable, with parking-lot Masses and confessions outdoors? Was the local pastor reckless, ignoring the public-health directives?

As one would expect, when it came to parishioners evaluating their parish priests, and priests evaluating their brothers and their bishops, there was a wide array of opinions. Given the polarized political climate, that array of views was often given intense expression.

The COVID conversations of 2021 have been different, not as intense and often not very public. The shepherds have been discussing the sheep. 

Now that many public-health measures have been lifted and churches are open again, I have not talked to a single bishop who is not worried that people who faithfully went to Mass for years have simply not returned. Almost every parish priest I talk to has a story about a formerly regular parishioner who no longer comes to Mass, but whom he sees at social occasions, the supermarket or at the local diner. Everybody sees that the football stadiums are as full as they used to be. The churches are not.

Everyone knows someone who takes COVID precautions very seriously, due to a variety of reasons. Those are people who have not returned to Mass, but who have not returned to many other activities, and have even limited those who enter their home. Yet there are a great many who have decided to return to various activities, but Mass is not one of them. 

If 2020 was the year when many Catholics were disappointed in their pastors, in 2021 it has been the pastors disappointed in their people. Not everywhere, of course, and not in every case. But it is certainly widespread.

There has been a spate of recent studies on the issue.

“In-person church attendance is roughly 30% to 50% lower than it was before the pandemic,” estimates Barna Group, which studies faith in the U.S.

A recent Associated Press poll indicated that church attendance has not returned to 2019 levels.

“Among Catholics, 26% attend in person at least weekly now, compared with 30% in 2019. In the 2020 poll, conducted as many bishops temporarily waived the obligation for weekly Mass attendance, just 5% were worshipping in person at least weekly,” the poll reported. 

That might be a hopeful result, indicating that many have returned as churches opened again. Yet it is not everyone, and that adds to a long-term decline that predated the pandemic.

“The Archdiocese of Boston had been losing about 2.5% of its Massgoing population each year since the early 1980s,” said Father Paul Soper, the archdiocese’s secretary for evangelization and discipleship. He estimates that attendance at its churches now is down roughly 30% from before the pandemic.

The pandemic upset usual patterns of life, and for many Massgoing Catholics, it was the pattern that was key to observance. 

Research by the Catholic Leadership Institute, based in Pennsylvania, indicates that 25%-27% of Massgoing Catholics say they go to church “out of habit,” according to the institute’s president, Dan Cellucci. 

The pandemic is natural evil, and evils principally destroy — even if God can eventually draw good out of them. In the early days of the pandemic, the faithful’s trust in their pastors was eroded. 

In these latter days, another precious bond of unity is eroding, that of the pastor’s confidence that their flocks will return. 

And the worst news of all? The pandemic is not over. The evil will continue to destroy. 

All the more reason for a new year of renewed prayer and evangelizing effort — not principally to reach new people, but to bring home those who have been nourished by the sacraments for so long.