It’s still to be seen if people will flock to in-person Mass again after almost two years of live-streamed services. CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters

Francis Campbell: Return to in-person Mass will be in God’s hands

  • January 14, 2022

Leisurely work-day walks provide a welcome respite from renewed restrictions brought on by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

When you live in small town Nova Scotia, you usually encounter a friend, relative or acquaintance on a neighbourhood walk. In my case, two walks in two days last week ahead of a forecast heavy snow storm featured short conversations with two long-time and faithful congregants of our parish.

Both times the back-and-forth inevitably produced commentary about how the recent return to streamlined Masses just didn’t compare with in-person services.

All three of us mused about whether the sputters and starts of limited attendance for in-person Masses for months on end, interspersed with several periods of no in-church Masses at all, might convince those who didn’t or couldn’t attend to continue the habit of abandoning the pews when so-called normal Mass attendance is finally permitted again.

A quick scan of the Internet did not reveal any detailed studies done in Canada to support or refute a theory that those not permitted to attend Mass during the pandemic might not return at COVID’s end.

But Carey Nieuwhof, a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church in Barrie, Ont., posted a blog in May 2020, just two months into the pandemic, about that question.

“With several months of online-only church, it can be hard to know how many new people have come on board, who’s still engaged, who’s left, and who may be drifting,” Nieuwhof wrote.

Nieuwhof quoted weekly polling done by the Barna Group, a California research company, that 49 to 59 per cent of congregations polled reported surging online attendance compared with former in-person attendance leading up to the first Easter of the pandemic.

After that first Easter, only 25 per cent of the same churches reported an attendance surge above previous in-person levels and church leaders each week were seeing their online numbers drop.

Alan Cooperman, reporting for the Pew Research Centre in Washington, D.C., wrote in August 2020 that a poll showed one in three U.S. adults had watched religious services online or on television in the previous month and more than half of them — or 18 per cent of all adults — said they began doing that for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nine out of 10 Americans surveyed who had watched services online or on TV in the previous month said the experience was either very satisfying (54 per cent) or somewhat satisfying (37 per cent).

A July 2020 Pew survey found that 42 per cent of U.S. adults surveyed said they planned to resume going to religious services about as often as they did before the outbreak, while 10 per cent said they would go more often than they used to.

Forty-three per cent of Americans said they didn’t attend in person before the pandemic and didn’t plan to start when the pandemic ended.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults surveyed said they had not watched religious services online or on TV in the previous  month, but of the one-third of U.S. adults who recently watched services online or on TV, relatively few (19 per cent of this group or six per cent of all adults) said that once the pandemic ends, they intended to watch religious services more often than they did before it started.

Most online worshippers said that after COVID-19 had passed, they planned to revert to their pre-pandemic habits (18 per cent of all adults) or watch online less often than they did before the outbreak (nine per cent).

My unofficial poll of our amalgamated parish, which has three active church buildings, is much less scientific. Five Nativity of the Lord Masses were scheduled for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and even with a 50-person Mass limit, some 200 people would have been expected to attend. With no restrictions, those numbers would likely extend well past 400.

Reduced to one livestreamed Mass on Christmas Day, the number of parishioners participating topped out at just more than 70.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said “where two or three have gathered in my name, I am in their midst,” and the certainty of His participation in our worship is unlikely to vary from in-person to online services.

One of the parish confidantes I met on foot capped the discussion by saying it’s in God’s hands whether or not people return to in-person Masses when the pandemic finally subsides.

(Campbell is a reporter with the Halifax Chronicle-Herald)

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