“When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” So read the Gospel from Matthew on August 2. I looked around the church, the clutch of parishioners fiddling with their masks. I love the thought of Jesus being “moved with pity” for the desperate crowds flocking to him. But in moments of fear and pain, the image lands differently.
I tried to shove aside the feeling—Where are you now, Lord?—and listen to the homily that followed. It was the first time I had attended Mass in person since the start of the pandemic, and I assumed the priest, like priests everywhere must be doing, would work the global crisis into his remarks. “If you bring your needs to Jesus,” he said, “miracles can happen.” A few loaves and fish will feed a crowd of five thousand. Illnesses will be cured. The dead will be raised! If we pray and have faith, he said, we can all get “our miracles.” I waited for the other shoe to drop—What about the people who don’t get their miracles?—but it never did.
It’s not the priest’s fault that to me on that day, the homily felt extra-useless. It came on the anniversary of my dad’s death, twenty-one years ago. My family had decided to attend Mass in person for that reason. I looked around again at the small group of parishioners. I couldn’t read their faces behind their masks.
The masks. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to see people attending Mass like this. Faces I’ve known for years, obscured for protection. Their songs muffled but faithfully sung. No sign of peace. Suddenly, we were all very fragile, not people in bodies but bodies that could hurt. An elderly parishioner approached the altar, bowed, and prepared to serve as a Eucharistic minister.