Public Worship = Public Health

04-17-2021Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Most preachers have topics they like to avoid or at least tread lightly around. After all the point of preaching is not to drive people out of the pews but to keep them there and keep them wanting to come back. Unfortunately, in a culture where everything is politicized, the list of hot-button topics is getting pretty long which makes it hard to avoid such topics since they start to intersect with just about everything in the Bible. A few that come to mind: abortion, contraception, marriage, transgender, immigration, and even the slightest mention of “he who shall not be named”.

But decent preachers know that when you take on an issue that tends to have emotional strings, you should do so carefully. Abortion is a good example. Any preacher worth his salt is going to consider that there are people sitting in the congregation that have participated in an abortion. So, you don't want to make them squirm or be overwhelmed by guilt but rather hear a message of forgiveness and the hope of healing. In stating clearly, the wrong of abortion a preacher should take care to include a message that offers the possibility of forgiveness for those who have had or participated in abortion.

All that being said, there is one hot-button issue that is hotter than hell and I hope I never, ever, ever have to deal with it again. In fact, most other pastors I know feel the same. What issue you say is that divisive, that uncomfortable, that can evoke a strong reaction from everyone? It is the issue of “masks” or facial coverings. Truth be told, I would rather preach for a year on Trump, Biden, Obama than have to address the issue of masks in public or in church.

The issue of wearing a mask or not is explosive unlike any other issue I have had to deal with over the years. Masks very quickly became a litmus test, not for how serious or not a person considered COVID-19, nor whether it was effective or not, but for a person’s politics. It very quickly ceased to have any connection to public health but everything to do with partisan politics. And to a lesser extent masks revealed the personalities that follow rules/directions and those who sometimes do and sometimes don’t. That part is pretty expected, anyone who has raised children knows how different personalities react to rules.

Almost from the start, pastors of all stripes heard this: if you don't make them wear masks, I’m not coming and if you do make them wear masks, I’m not coming. Great. Talk about a losing proposition. This one issue more than any other has turned people against each other, divided families, made work places hostile and ruined friendships.

Every pastor had to ask, “how do I make as many people comfortable as possible coming to Church and if masks are mandatory how do I enforce that?” You probably saw the how one pastor in Dallas enforced it: he had a pregnant mother who was holding a one year old, who had taken her mask off because she was feeling nauseous, taken out of Mass by the police in handcuffs. You might think that extreme, but enforcement is enforcement. Still that’s not something I could ever do.

The whole way we have approached the pandemic has been imperfect. Public Health officials were trying to operate on the "y and often were more confusing than helpful. The rest of us were trying to figure ways not just to mitigate the virus but the collateral damage that has been just as bad (psychological distress, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse to name a few). Few of us hit the right stride.

I know my approach didn't please everyone or maybe anyone. I was reported multiple times to the Bishop’s Office, AZ Dept. of Health, Maricopa County Dept. of Health and the City of Tempe. I was almost hoping they would say, “under the pain of death you must…” They never did. But I will say that we monitored the Church gatherings as well as our School very closely and we traced no outbreaks to either. Mostly because large spaces with good ventilation are much more safe than small enclosed spaces with poor ventilation in terms of virus spread. But also, because most people used common sense and stayed away if they were feeling ill or were possibly exposed to the virus. I really applaud our school parents because they have been exceptionally vigilant in monitoring their children for any possible exposure outside of school. Thank you, it worked.

In the meantime, now that the virus is waning, we can chalk it all up to “what the heck just happened” and move beyond the recriminations, judgments, resentments and fears. Like the Phoenix we rise from the ashes and start over. Hopefully, soon the only mask we will see is the Masked Singer or the Masked Dancer but not the masked preacher.

Fr. John B.