Mass Attendance and Cura Personalis

The novel coronavirus pandemic resulted in novel dilemmas for Catholic parishes. In compliance with local health mandates, many parishes quickly augmented their technological capabilities to offer “virtual Mass” to provide members a safe option to participate in their faith life. After months of adhering to health protocols, there are variant responses from Catholic parishioners, including those who desire to return to full in-person Mass offerings,1 while others do not believe this is the right time to remove the dispensation on Mass attendance2 given the continued spread of COVID.3

To respond to these divergent views on in-person Mass attendance during the pandemic, I believe parish administrators ought to consider adopting the Jesuit model of Cura Personalis.

As a model of Jesuit pedagogical engagement, Cura Personalis, translated from Latin as “care for the whole person,” encompasses “taking a personal interest in the intellectual, affective, moral and spiritual development of every student . . . They are ready to listen to their cares and concerns about the meaning of life, to share their joys and sorrows, to help them with personal growth and interpersonal relationships.”4

Similarly, parish clergy and staff members can promote a care for the whole parishioner, including but not limited to the parishioner’s physical and spiritual health, as well as the parishioner’s emotional wellness.

Intrinsic to Cura Personalis is that each person is unique, and therefore the care offered is not cookie-cutter in nature but specific to the parishioner. One parish household might include high-risk persons, requiring a heightened need to strictly adhere to health and safety protocols to keep the household safe. Therefore, any parish messaging exhorting parishioners to return to attending Mass in person might be deeply inappropriate and insensitive. The parish might also run the risk of instilling internal conflict around guilt for not being at Mass versus keeping family members safe. Cura Personalis would demand that the parish respect this household’s need to refrain from in-person Mass attendance and to consider how to best minister to the household given the unique circumstances.

Conversely, there might be a parish household who relied on its participation in parish life, including the celebration of the Eucharist and its reception, as a source of consolation. The sadness and anxiety stemming from the coronavirus pandemic might be exacerbated for this household without daily and weekly Mass. Watching Mass online might not provide the same spiritual solace, and in-person options such as outdoor Masses might not replicate for this household the parish Mass experience pre-pandemic, especially if some of the fellow parishioners who used to attend regularly are no longer attending in person.

These are two valid parishioner perspectives, and I acknowledge that I am illustrating an oversimplified dichotomy, but how does a parish satisfy diverging and contradictory desires?

While a Cura Personalis model offered in a parish with respect to this sensitive issue might be a daunting task, Jesuit schools have operated in this spirit for centuries, often working with hundreds of students at a time. But this is a sound concern since parishes have transformed themselves into Zoom and livestream centers. The stress of the change in parish life amid the stress of the pandemic, not to mention the stress on parish finances, suggests that the parish might be vulnerable to a metaphorical panic attack trying to maneuver these changing dynamics and striving to engage the divergent views of parishioners on in-person Mass attendance.

Therefore, I believe a Cura Personalis model with a both/and approach might be a possible way to navigate the varying parishioner sentiment on Mass attendance.

In caring for each parishioner, an undeniable and truly valid uniform application of care is ensuring the parish places everyone’s health and safety first. While there might be parishioners lobbying for pre-pandemic Masses, this personal desire contradicts both their safety and the wellness of others, and therefore overturning this desire actually demonstrates care for them as well as all of those in the parish.

From this basis of care, a parish can utilize a hybrid model for Sunday liturgies, with a safe outdoor, distanced setup along with a virtual option, as many parishes have successfully implemented. Having the parishioners’ care at the heart of this rationale can hopefully allow each parishioner to appreciate that households have varying needs, and rather than having parishioners criticize each other for choosing one option over the other, the parish can teach its parishioners to also exhibit Cura Personalis for one another in the form of compassion for whichever means one chooses to celebrate the Eucharist.

For those who prefer attending Mass online amid the pandemic, a parish must acknowledge that there will be those in need of this option for the foreseeable future.

While a virtual Mass does not have the same feel as an in-person Mass pre-pandemic, I believe there are ways to ensure that the online Mass is an uplifting experience that can aim retain on a weekly basis those parishioners who benefit from this option:

Emphasis on Reverence in the Celebration of Mass

For virtual Mass attendees, the benefit of seeing the Mass online is they generally have a more up-close view of the altar and the ambo, and therefore can, in theory, closely follow the liturgy.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

Since virtual Mass attendees have such a close view, the celebration of Mass cannot take for granted the importance of reverence in the liturgy, encompassing everyone from the celebrant(s), lectors and servers. Care, pacing and intentionality ought to be demonstrated. A liturgy celebrated with reverence can allow the viewer to feel truly present in the celebration, and instilled with a desire to respond and participate with reverence.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola often used the term acatamiento to describe his reverence of God in prayer, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist.5 Acatamiento has the word captare as its root, with the notion of being captured or seized in reverence and veneration.6 The reverence of Ignatius was infectious, attracting members to his new order as well as directees in the Spiritual Exercises. A parish too has the ability to spread this reverence, far more pervasively than the spread of the coronavirus, by fostering a deep reverence in the celebration of the Mass.

Conversely, if parishioners do not perceive the reverence in the celebration of Mass, they might lose interest in continuing with virtual Mass.

Emphasis on Preaching

For virtual Mass attendees, the homily is one of the focal points that particularly draws their attention. Because these attendees cannot receive the Eucharist in person or participate seamlessly along with the choir, for many virtual participants, the preached message following the Gospel generally offers them one of the most relevant parts of the Mass. The homily ought to offer a message of hope and love, a word of healing to combat the fear and infection rate of the pandemic. Parishioners need to understand the Gospel message not in esoteric terms but applicable to their current conditions of navigating life’s challenges due to the pandemic.

Therefore, priests and deacons ought to employ special care when preparing and delivery their homilies, mindful that for many of their online parishioners, this will be what they might most take away from the liturgy. Otherwise, if parishioners viewing from home perceive the homilies to be out of touch, the parish risks not only losing engagement for the following week, but potentially losing these persons as parishioners once it is safe to fully return to Mass in person.

While the online model for Sunday Mass might be a necessary measure for the foreseeable future, if care is exhibited both in reverence in the celebration of Mass and in the homily, I believe online parishioners will look forward to returning to Mass in person. People much prefer a live concert or sporting event than watching it on television, and while the Mass is a far more significant gathering, if parishes exhibit the celebration of the Eucharist as a powerful and reverent event, I would expect parishioners to eagerly return to the in-person celebration once it is fully safe.

For the parishioners who would prefer to attend Mass at the parish, if the parish has the means to offer this option safely, then it can meet the needs of these parishioners. Whether the Mass is done outdoors with families in clusters or participating from their cars, the recommendations for virtual Mass engagement — reverence and impactful homilies — would also allow the in-person attendees to have a prayerful and pleasant experience at Mass despite the conditions being less desirable than pre-pandemic. Additionally, these recommendations ought to ensure the retention of parishioners who prefer to attend Mass in person.

The Jesuit model of Cura Personalis provides a creative and pastoral approach for parishes to respond to the varying needs of its members regarding in-person Mass attendance. Offering multiple options with health and safety as the baseline demonstrates an overall message of care, and the flexibility with the hybrid model allows parishioners to feel heard and responded to with respect to their unique circumstances. Regardless of which option a household chooses, I believe a parish can ensure engagement and parishioner retention by emphasizing reverence in the celebration of the Mass — acatamiento as exemplified by St. Ignatius of Loyola — as well as through homilies that preach the Gospel and speak to the pressing needs of the parishioners amid the pandemic.

  1. George Hunter, “Protesters to Detroit Archdiocese: Reopen churches for Mass.” The Detroit News, May 7, 2020. www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2020/05/07/catholic-protesters-demand-detroit-archdiocese-reopen-churches-mass/5176687002/.
  2. Marissa Nichols, “Stop Berating the Laity Over In-Person Mass.” Where Peter Is, February 14, 2021. wherepeteris.com/stop-berating-the-laity-over-in-person-mass.
  3. www.worldometers.info/coronavirus.
  4. “The Characteristics of Jesuit Education,” The Jesuit Ratio Studiorum: 400th Anniversary Perspectives, ed. Vincent J. Duminico, S.J. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), p. 181.
  5. Obras Completas de San Ignacio de Loyola, eds. Ignacio Iparraguirre and Candido de Dalmases (Madrid, 1952), p. 361.
  6. Charles E. O’Neill, SJ, “Acatamiento: Ignatian Reverence in History and in Contemporary Culture,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Vol. VIII January 1976 No. 1, p. 3.
Avatar About Matthew Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Rite. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder.

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