Last week, Devra Torres saw some houses of worship around the country being shuttered for fear of spreading the coronavirus and considered it “extreme.” People shouldn’t be “left alone” without Communion or confession, said Torres, who has gone to Mass every day for decades.
Then came news that the Archdiocese of Washington was calling for parishes to be closed as well, including St. Mark’s, to which the 55-year-old freelance editor walks each day at noon to worship.
Torres’ final Mass — at least for now — was March 13.
“I feel sad. It may seem fanatical to some, but for me this is a very special time of connection with God every day,” Torres, who went Friday morning with her 11-year-old son, said of the closures that right now are scheduled through March 27. Catholics, she noted, “believe Jesus is literally present in Communion. You can’t get that on TV.”
Fear of the contagion this week had religious leaders first altering, and then quickly canceling, access to rituals that for millions are sustenance that can feel as basic as food or water.
In North Carolina, churches scrambled to respond to Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order last week to cancel gatherings of 100 or more people. Many congregations switched to online streaming of their services.
Houses of worship closing until further notice means empty confession booths. No Communion. No synagogue minyan, the 10-person quorum required by Judaism to pray certain key prayers, including the one mourners say for the dead. And for many who are less orthodox, the absence of a time they set aside in a place that to them feels holy.
“It really is a sense of deprivation,” said Sarah Bartel, 42, who lives with her husband and five children outside Seattle, where the Catholic archbishop was the first in the country to suspend all public Masses. Washington, D.C., came soon after. Bartel usually attends three times a week. “We believe that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection are in the mystery of the Mass — it’s at the heart of our lives,” she said.
Before the dramatic closures of the past few days, religious leaders had wrestled first with adjustments to make worship more hygienic.
Priests substituted a loaf of bread for Communion with individual wafers. Bishops ordered the end of shared cups that in some churches are akin to Jesus’s blood, or in others represent primarily his presence. Rabbis halted the ritual kissing of mezuzot, the small containers on doorposts in Jewish buildings that contain the prayer the Shema and the touching of one’s prayer shawl — after kissing it — to the first letter of the Torah section from which a community reader is about to read.
“The rabbi requested we do a ‘drive-by.’ You hover your hand over the Torah scroll, but don’t touch the Torah,” said Sandy Reinhard, 76, a semiretired attorney in Weston, Fla. Those changes have been in place a couple weeks, Reinhard said, as have the cancellation of many synagogue events, such as a weekly scripture conversation.
“Other than the curtailment of the social connection, it’s not a major impact yet. It may become different,” he said.
The decision was agonizing for many religious leaders.
On March 11, after the Episcopal dioceses of Washington, D.C., and Virginia announced they would be shutting their churches altogether to prevent the virus spreading, Maryland Episcopal Bishop Eugene Sutton issued a statement saying he could not do that.
“To deny the Holy Eucharist,” he wrote, citing the ancient rite many Christian churches do — often with bread and wine — to represent Jesus and connect the worshiper to their faith and to God, “to people on a regular basis in worship would present a serious theological challenge to a sacramentally formed community.”
Within 24 hours, Sutton noted that the Maryland governor had closed schools temporarily, and thus services would be suspended until March 27.
“He raised a very good point. In a time of crisis when it feels like everything is coming apart, we lean on our community and religious rituals to give us frame of meaning and a promise to hold fast to beyond the current crisis,” said the Rev. Anjel Scarborough, interim rector at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Owings Mills, outside Baltimore.
Scarborough said the upending of worship services was a kind of grieving, like Americans are doing for the countless weddings, sports events, graduations, trips and other planned events that have been canceled in the hopes that it prevents the spread of the virus.
As a priest, the thing she said she worries most about with the shuttered houses of worship is the sense of disconnectedness, and increased risk of people becoming depressed.
“We’re in Lent, contemplating the reality that we are dust and to dust we’ll return, and this has been a powerful reminder of that,” she said.
Robert Jeffress, leader of Texas megachurch First Baptist Dallas and a spiritual adviser to President Trump, told local station KDFW-TV that he would not cancel services: “What we do is more important than what the NBA is doing.”
Jennifer Perrow, of Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church, said she felt a loss that services at her church were being canceled. But she was buoyed by the reminder from a pastor friend to focus on things like checking on elderly neighbors.
“At its best, church is a community of people who care for each other and who love and worship God. All of those things can happen even when people can’t gather in a building. I can pray, I can read my Bible, support my neighbors and elderly,” Perrow said. “The fact that the building is closed has no bearing on my ability to do those things.”
This isn’t the first time these conversations have been had. 9Marks, an evangelical ministry for training pastors, this week published a history of how churches responded in 1918 when the government shut down public gatherings because of the Spanish flu. The piece quoted a letter to the editor to the Evening Star — a Washington newspaper — by a D.C. pastor.
“Nothing has so contributed to that state of panic which has gripped this community as the fact that the normal religious life of our city has been disorganized,” the letter read, according to the 9Marks piece. City commissioners had used only “materialistic grounds” to argue for the closure. “That prayer had any efficacy in the physical world was an idea that was given no hospitality” by the commissioners, the letter read.
As much as she is missing church, Torres said she is reminded that regular people are the church, just as much as the building and the clergy.
“Striving for holiness in everyday life is something we’re all called to. I try to be connected with God as I do the insurance papers and do the dishes and teach my kids. ... That’s what I try to do and it’s not limited to Mass. I don’t at all feel I don’t have contact with God.”
Until the churches reopen, Torres will practice a tradition called “spiritual communion,” in which she appeals directly to God. There are different versions, or people can make up their own, she said. She will say these words:
“I wish, my Lord, to receive you with the purity, humility and devotion with which your most holy mother received you. With all the spirit and the fervor of the saints.”