Mass: Masked or Unmasked? – The Roman Catholic Mass Explained
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Mass: Masked or Unmasked?

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2020 was off to a great start. Then March happened and the U.S. was introduced to COVID-19. For many, going to school was a thing of the past as was commuting to work. Soon, attending Mass in person went away as well. School, work and worship were all done virtually.

By June, however, some states started bringing back public Masses. But it wasn’t the Mass as it was before. Mass now included social distancing, scrupulous sanitizing and above all, mask wearing—by both people and priest.

I was struck by the photos of priests and deacons distributing communion wearing masks. Most donned the blue surgical masks we’re now accustomed to seeing. Others opted for the construction-type dust masks. Neither matched the dignity of their vestments and both looked like the masks everyone else was wearing. Nothing special.

But the Church takes great strides to make sure the priest doesn’t look rank-and-file.  He wears an alb, stole and chasuble—fashion I would dare say most of us do not have hanging in our closets. In fact, the requirements for the chalice he uses explicitly mention that it should NOT look like anything we see everyday:

“As regards the form of the sacred vessels, it is for the artist to fashion them in a manner that is more particularly in keeping with the customs of each region, provided the individual vessels are suitable for their intended liturgical use and are clearly distinguishable from vessels intended for everyday use.—General Instruction of the Roman Missal #332

In addition to mere dignity and beauty, there is a theological reason that clashes with priests wearing disposable, everyday masks.

The theology of the mask

When man was in paradise, before the fall, there was no disease, sickness or death. Adam and Eve were in a state of original holiness. They shared in the divine life and were in full communion with God. After the fall, sin and death came into the world:

“Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”—Romans 5:12

Sickness and death are consequences of the fall and the priest needs to wear a mask because of a virus that’s causing people to get sick and die. It seems strange that, at the moment of Holy Communion when we receive our Lord, the priest is wearing an article that is necessary because of humanity’s sin.

But Mass is a foretaste of heaven—a place where there is no more sin or death:

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more.”—Revelation 21:4

During Mass, the assembly should be reminded of heaven, not the fall.

So it became my desire to replace the clinical, hospital masks with ones that are as noble as the priest’s and deacon’s vestments. I took to researching masks and fabrics and created a line of masks in the appropriate liturgical colors that are “Altar Worthy”.

These masks have been bought by:

  • Priests and deacons for their own use
  • Parishioners wanting to gift them to their priests and deacons
  • Parents for themselves and as gifts for the godparents at baptisms
  • Parents for themselves and their first communicants
  • Confirmation candidates and their sponsors
  • The bride, groom and their bridal party

The masks have been available for several months and have made their way across the country and to Canada, Australia and the Philippines. The vast majority of customer comments are incredibly positive:

  • Simply elegant. A unique liturgical gift!
  • Exquisite design and fabric! Rich color. Will enhance my pastor’s liturgical vestments nicely.
  • This liturgical mask is absolutely beautiful, well made and perfect for my Deacon husband and our priest.
  • We love it. We ordered it because of my daughters Confirmation. But we’re going to use it from here on on the masses we attend.
  • These masks are absolutely stunning! Bought them as godparents gifts for my sons baptism and they are perfect!
  • This mask is just as bright and colorful as it shows in the picture.
  • I bought five of these masks to gift to my Pastor. I got five Liturgical colors, Gold, White, Green, Red, and Purple. My Pastor was super happy and excited to wear them. Especially with upcoming Confirmation for our young Parishioners.
  • These masks are absolutely beautiful, well made.

I couldn’t imagine anyone being opposed to their use. But, peppered in with the positive comments in articles was a negative one: “Absolute blasphemy”.  I was aware of altercations at Target, Starbucks and other stores between those who wear masks and those who refuse. But at Mass?

Yes. At Mass.

Mass Unmasked

Some believe the masks are a sign of the government’s ability to arbitrarily take away our right to choose—to take away our freedom. The website of a parish in Wisconsin reads:

“Face coverings are required (ages five and older), per state emergency order.”—St. Francis Borgia Parish, Cedarburg, WI

While another parish in Florida explains that mask use by the assembly is not mandated:

“Parishioners are encouraged, but not required, to wear a face mask. All ministers are to wear masks. “—St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church, Ormond Beach, FL

So who has jurisdiction over what happens at Mass—the Diocesan bishop or local, state or federal authorities? For many mask opponents, the imposition of masks are symbolic of the usurping of power and authority from the religious to the civil.

Opponents may also perceive the masks as a symbol of fear—the result of politically driven scare tactics rather than hard science. They point to the CDC’s initial declaration that masks were ineffective and President Trump’s apparent disregard for them. Detractors point to news coverage of BLM protests which rarely mention social distancing or mask use but denounce Republican rallies precisely because of social distancing and mask use. For them, masks are a symbol of partisanship and fear mongering.

From this perspective, I can see why someone would be prompted to write “Absolute Blasphemy” in response to seeing a picture of a priest wearing a mask—no matter how beautiful.

So where do you stand? Do you prefer Mass masked or unmasked? Are masks a necessary part of slowing the spread or are they a symbol of heavy-handed civil authority meddling where it doesn’t belong? Are masks a way of protecting the vulnerable in our parish community or is it the stripping away of our religious freedoms? Or do you have an entirely different opinion on masks at Mass? Share and let’s learn together!

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After his collegiate reversion to Catholicism, Dan Gonzalez began an intense study of the liturgy. His 25-year research culminated in the Mass Explained app which carries a nihil obstat and imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Miami. His second app, Catholic Words and Games, teaches the names of the vessels and vestments used at Mass. As a graphic designer,  Dan has created several products to help teach the Mass including a card gamecoloring book, pinsdecals and t-shirts which can be found in his online store AgnusGiftShop.

4 Comments

  1. Maria Zuniga

    August 12, 2020 at 3:39 am

    I believe parishioners do need to wear masks at Mass. I wear a face covering for the protection of those around me, not necessarily for my protection. I was diagnosed positive with the virus on July 7, 2020. I was at Mass on Sunday, July 5. I spoke with several people on this particular Sunday, and I was wearing my mask. The individuals that I spoke with were not wearing masks. If I had the virus then but was unaware, I could have possibly spread the virus to these parishioners.
    I do not believe they rob us of our human dignity, limit our ability to worship or prevent authentic social interactions.
    I work in the health field. My coworkers and I are wearing masks all day. We wear three different types of covers, depending on our work for the day.
    The only authentic human interaction I see affected by this pandemic is not being able to gather with family, parishioners, or hug your loved ones.

    • dan

      August 12, 2020 at 9:54 am

      Thank you Maria for reading this article and for taking the time to write! I think you and I are on the same page when it comes to our beliefs and practices of mask use.

      So what should we do at Mass when we encounter others who believe differently? At my parish here in Miami, FL, Mass is held indoors but mask use and social distancing are compulsory. In the article I cited a parish where mask use is voluntary, but encouraged.

      How is it in your parish? Is it mandatory? Are there any parishioners that you’re aware of who disagree with mask use and refuse to attend Mass because of it? I wonder how the climate is in “mixed” parishes. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  2. Molly

    August 11, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay.

    I believe that wearing masks at Mass and otherwise robs us of our human dignity and limits our ability to worship unhindered, and also prevents authentic human interactions. Can bishops even command these mandates? Per Eric Sammons in his recent essay at Crisis Magazine (“Covid-19 and the Limits of Obedience”), “it’s unclear if the bishop has the authority to make such a directive.” (e.g. wearing a mask at Mass or other Sacraments.” And is it charitable for these bishops to ask their priests, and by extensions priests to ask lay people, ushers etc. to enforce these mandates? I find that as distasteful as governors asking business to enforce their “emergency” orders.

    Moreover, from reading the medical literature, and watching the numbers of COVD-19 deaths diminish, I remain unconvinced that mask-wearing is necessary or even beneficial. Exposure to infectious diseases is a risk of human interaction, and given that humans are social, limiting or hampering human interactions to avoid infectious diseases bears greater costs to societies thriving than does exposure to infectious diseases. While God has allowed pathogenic bacteria, viruses and the like to exist on Earth, no Divine law exists to forbid human interaction, not even at the most intimate – “Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh.”

    Lastly, anticipating arguments that my stance is pro-death, and that my actions are causing others to suffer and possibly die, and also to address the fear of death that has gripped everyone of late, I will quote from a beautiful piece at Medium written by Katherine Baker, an Orthodox Christian, widow of a priest, and mother of six (living children). She lost a baby at 20 weeks gestation and her husband to a car accident 2 weeks later, and reflects on the current pandemic and fear of death in this striking statement – “Christians have never held that death is only a game of chance. It is unconscionable to burden people with guilt for the deaths of others just for going about their lives, especially for the deaths of the most fragile, when death awaits us all.”

    To your efforts to beautify masks for the Sacraments, on the face, altar-worthy masks seem a worthy endeavor, and I am sure are made with good intentions. However, I feel that this effort gives legs to the assumption that masks are necessary, and implies that masks are here to stay, rather than question the original assumption. An acceptance, so to speak, of a condition I and many others find unacceptable.

    Thank you for giving a space for people to share their opinions! God bless.

    • dan

      August 11, 2020 at 8:22 pm

      Thank you so much, Molly for taking the time to read my article and for replying!

      You offer a perspective I never considered, that masks:

      1. Rob us of our human dignity
      2. Limit our ability to worship
      3. Prevent authentic human interactions

      I never considered these and I would love to learn more.

      You mention that “While God has allowed pathogenic bacteria, viruses and the like to exist on Earth, no Divine law exists to forbid human interaction, not even at the most intimate.”

      What came to mind when I read this was the Levitical law concerning leprosy:

      “And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a [a]leprous sore, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore. Then the priest shall examine him, and pronounce him unclean. But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the sore seven days.”—Leviticus 13:1-9

      It seems that here is a divine law that forbids human interaction due to an illness.

      And there’s also a prohibition about touching women during menstruation:

      “When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.”—Leviticus 15:19

      Do you think these are divine laws that, at one point, limited human interaction, or do these not apply? By the way, I’m not trying to be snarky or a smart aleck, I really want to know your opinion! Since these two instances are in the OT, I can see an interpretation that we no longer live under the law and these no longer apply. What do you think?

      This quote is interesting:

      “Christians have never held that death is only a game of chance. It is unconscionable to burden people with guilt for the deaths of others just for going about their lives, especially for the deaths of the most fragile, when death awaits us all.”

      No doubt. Death awaits us all. St. Francis, Sister Death. I get it.

      However, I don’t share that author’s perspective. When I look into the chapel of the people there for daily Mass, most of what I see are elderly who need walkers many of whom carry oxygen tanks. My own mother, who is a daily communicant, suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes, and has pulmonary issues. I can’t imagine entering that small room without a mask on. Knowing that I could have somehow inadvertently passed on an illness to someone there and they die would be unbearable. I would leave a family grieving.

      But you could dive deep into that. The person is with Christ. Their sufferings have ended. What I’m saving myself from is my own guilt. But that’s a bit much for me. Let me put on the mask!

      But what I would love for you to elaborate on, if you could, is how does a mask limit your ability to worship (sing?, make the responses? Give a sign of peace?)

      And how does the mask rob you of your human dignity? I can see the tattoos and the patches sewn on the Jews during the Holocaust that reduces them to a number robbing them of their human dignity. But how does a mask do the same? Covering part of God’s creation? We are made in the image and likeness of God? I’m trying to see it from your side!

      Thank you Molly!

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