DENVER, Colo. — The Hernon family just barely makes the cut for the latest coronavirus social distancing measures, which allow only 10 people or less to gather together.
Though Mike and Alicia have 10 children, two of them are married and no longer live at home. They still have eight children under their roof, ranging in age from 7-22.
And now, as Sunday approaches and Masses across the country are canceled, the Hernon family, who run a ministry called The Messy Family Project, are thinking about how they can keep Sunday as a holy day without the liturgical celebration of the Mass.
“My first thought is that this pandemic is Lent for the world,” Mike said.
“It's an imposed sacrifice that we didn't choose, but like Lent, it's stripping us away from things of this world. And it gives us an opportunity to focus on what matters, our faith and our families. Not to make light of anything, but to see...this as a way for us to become more intentional in our family life.
On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Two days later, announcements from Catholic dioceses in the United States started trickling in. Public Masses were suspended in order to stop the spread of the disease. By March 18, every Latin Catholic diocese in the United States had suspended public Masses.
The Hernons were able to attend Mass last Sunday, so this weekend will be their first Sunday without Mass during the coronavirus pandemic.
They said the new situation should encourage Catholic parents to be the spiritual leaders of their homes.
“I think sometimes parents, we rely on (our parish) to kind of help us celebrate Sunday. We're like, ‘Oh, go to Mass, and then we'll come home and just whatever. It's just another day.’ So we were relying on Father, your pastor, to do Mass. Well now that you can’t do that, parents actually have to take that responsibility,” Alicia said.
Mike especially encouraged fathers to take the lead.
He said that on Sunday, their family plans to read the Mass readings for the day, and on to pray morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. Mike said fathers could consider leading the family in a simple meditation on the Gospel or another scripture passage of the day.
“Just meditating and spending some time (in silence) as a family. And then discussing it and having a conversation, instead of a homily, but having a little bit of that type of discussion with the family. Particularly dads need to really take some leadership in the way that they lead a time of prayer on Sunday. It doesn't have to be elaborate,” he said.
The Hernons also suggest a family examination of conscience, and a time for family members to apologize to each other if necessary.
“Everybody can modify based upon their kids, and what's age appropriate, if they have older kids or younger kids,” Mike said. Alicia also encouraged dads to take the lead in celebrating Sunday.
“This is a great time for dads to step up and take that mantle that God has given them all along,” Alicia said.
The Hernons encouraged families to set aside the time for silence and family prayer, even if they are also planning on watching a televised Mass. They said younger children are likely to respond best to incorporating physical elements of prayer, such as candles or religious images, into their prayer time.
“Kids, but not even just kids, as people, we are so tangible. We are Catholics, we need physical things,” Alicia said.
“Make up a little altar, light candles, have a picture of Jesus, have a picture of the Blessed Mother. If you don't have a statue or religious things, get them. Buy them on Amazon, immediately,” she said. “Include holy water in your ritual. Have everyone bless themselves.”
Alicia added that keeping Sundays holy should include not only prayer, but the way the rest of the day is lived out.
“If you look in the Catechism about how to celebrate Sunday, it doesn't say just go to Mass. You have Mass, but then you also refrain from unnecessary work, take time to join with other families, take time to focus on each other,” she said.
Obviously, those things will look different in a world of social isolation, Mike and Alicia said, but it can include games and other forms of recreation, as well as special meals.
“You could make a maze out of your home, you could do a treasure hunt, you can get outside for goodness sake, we don't have to stay inside,” Alicia said.
“You can still go on a hike. If there's a lake nearby, you can go swimming, you can go to a beach, you can just get outside and do something with your family.”
The Hernons said they discussed a lot of ideas for how to spend this time of pandemic as a family on their latest podcast episode, and that they plan on coming up with a Sunday guide for prayer time that families can follow on their website.
Adam Barlett is also planning on making a guide to help families lead prayer in their homes on Sundays. Bartlett is the founder and president of Source and Summit, a new Catholic apostolate dedicated to helping parishes elevate the liturgy. He is also a husband and father to two girls, aged 13 and 9.
“Source and Summit exists to serve parishes fundamentally, but by extension to help all Catholics elevate liturgical prayer,” Bartlett told CNA. “So we found it kind of ironic that the moment we launched, parishes and diocese just started shutting down the public celebration of Mass. And so we felt kind of a obligation to respond in some way.”
To respond to canceled public Masses, Bartlett and his team at Source and Summit have begun building a website that can serve as a liturgical guide for families on Sundays during this time of canceled Masses, titled Keep the Lord’s Day.
The site will include a guide and texts of that Sunday’s Morning Prayer, as well as the Liturgy of the Word for Mass, and a prayer to make a spiritual communion. There will also be a musical component guiding families in liturgical chant.
“It’s a resource for Catholics to help them continue to pray the liturgy, and to unite themselves through the never ending prayer - the liturgy - from their homes when they can't attend Mass at their parish.”
The Bartlett family started praying the Liturgy of the Hours this last week, as Colorado was one of the first states to announce that all Masses were suspended to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“We realize that for a lot of people, the Liturgy of the Hours can be confusing or intimidating. It can be really difficult to navigate. And a lot of times people don't know about it or if they're even doing it correctly. So we thought we could put together a little resource for real liturgical prayer in the home for Sundays to help families unite themselves to this one never ending eternal prayer of the Church, which is a type of liturgy,” he said.
The Liturgy of the Hours are a set of prayers, including Psalms and readings from both the Old and New Testaments, that are prayed multiple times a day throughout the world by Catholic priests, nuns, and religious sisters and brothers, Bartlett said, but the Church also invites lay Catholics to pray the Hours as well.
“All of the lay faithful are invited to join in this prayer,” he said.
While watching a livestream Mass can be a place to start for families, Bartlett said he hopes Catholics will also consider praying the Liturgy of the Hours with their families, because of its sacramental and liturgical nature.
“As Catholics, our worship is sacramental... meaning that God communicates himself to us through physical things. And we're able to worship and to pray not only in a purely spiritual way, but also in a physical way with our bodies, with our voices, with gesture, with things that engage all of our senses,” he said.
Mass, of course, uses all of these things, he added. Catholics sit, stand, speak, sing, listen, smell incense and taste the Eucharist.
“It engages all of our senses,” he said. “And this is the way that Christ chose to draw to himself and to unite us to himself in that, not only the spiritual way but the very real sacramental way.”
But if Catholics only participate in prayer through a screen for the next few months, they will miss out on the sacramentality and the liturgy of the Church, he said.
“That can be a little bit more of a passive engagement rather than a real physical participation in the liturgy itself,” he said.
Another reason he would encourage Catholics to pray the Liturgy of the Hours would be because it would feel set apart from the day-to-day activities, which, during a time of pandemic, will increasingly take place in front of a screen, he said.
“Part of the nature of liturgical prayer is that it's intentionally set apart; and another way of saying that is that it's sacred. We use sacred objects. It's set apart from the ordinary aspects of our life,” he said.
“Now, being in our homes will kind of limit our ability to go into a beautiful church and into a sacred place for prayer. But if we think about watching the Mass in the same place where we watch Netflix, there's a kind of challenge there, in that it's not a time that we're setting apart for the sacred,” he said.
“So really what we're encouraging people to do, particularly on Sundays, on the Lord's Day, is to create a kind of sacred space in their home for prayer and to engage in it themselves,” Bartlett added.
Fr. Ryan Hilderbrand, the pastor of St. Mary's in Huntingburg, Indiana, is streaming and posting his Masses on his new YouTube channel. He said watching Mass on a livestream or on TV on Sundays can be a great start for families, but he also encouraged them to participate in “age-appropriate devotionals.”
“Watching a live stream is a great way to participate in the Mass if someone can't attend. Actual graces are still present and can stir the heart to a deeper relationship with Jesus,” Hildebrand told CNA.
“However, it is clearly different from participating in Mass by one's physical presence. Among other things, Mass is the reunion of Christ the Head with his Mystical Body, the Church. We are all sons and daughters of the Father, coming together as that one body in Jesus for Mass. Additionally, we are made members of one another at Mass - we carry one another's burdens, offer support and prayer, and encourage one another in worshiping the Father,” he added.
Besides prayer and watching Mass, Hildebrand encouraged families to observe Sundays as a day of joy and rest by spending time together.
“For families with kids, they could follow the old rule of ‘spirituality, service, silliness’ - that is, pray together, do something constructive together, and have fun together,” he said.
Service might look different under social distancing, he added, but it could be cleaning out closets together or collecting toys and clothes for future donations.
As for silliness -“Have fun together! Watch a movie, play a board game, joust with pool noodles - what is important is that they do something as a family,” he said.
Calvin Mueller is the coordinator of rural parish evangelization at the Archdiocese of Omaha, which had Mass last weekend, but announced on Monday the “indefinite” suspension of public Masses and other sacraments with 10 or more people present.
That day, Mueller posted to his Facebook page a personalized “Mueller Family Pandemic Plan,” which included plans for worship and prayer, and asked his friends for feedback.
With three children under the age of 5, Mueller said planning a lot of structured prayer time is difficult. Their family plans to say a daily rosary, for example, but they will say only as many decades as they can “until our kids lose it,” he said.
As for Sundays, Mueller said the family plans on watching their local parish’s livestream Mass and making a spiritual communion. Mueller said he also wants to plan his family’s Sundays around three different areas: reverence of holy things, reverence of others, and experiencing the joy of Christ.
Even if a family does not stream Mass, Mueller said they could spend some time in silence and prayer with “engagement in scripture, making a spiritual communion, and the rosary.”
As for reverencing others, Mueller said he would encourage families to think about who they could reach out to either through phone calls or video chats on Sundays.
“That might be grandparents, or other loved ones, in order that you can experience community together,” Mueller said.
Mueller added that even though most restaurants and venues are closed, Sundays should not stop being days to experience the joy of the Lord. “That might mean baking a particular food, or serving a particular drink, or playing a game that you know is going to bring life to your family,” he said.
Ultimately, while this is an “unprecedented time” in the life of the modern Church, Mueller said he is viewing it as a gift that calls for an “unprecedented response” from Christians.
“I see this as a tremendous gift, to actually be able to slow down and reevaluate the sainthood that Christ is calling all of us to. And I'm grateful that people are recognizing the ephemeral pleasures that they're used to...are not adequate for what the Lord has really made us for. So to have this time, to actually have that come to the light, I see it as a tremendous gift and my hope is that the Church, and ourselves as the Church, will seize this opportunity to fill the void.”