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March 5, 2021

Trying to Hold on to Spiritual Assembly during COVID-19

Trying to Hold on to Spiritual Assembly during COVID-19

I must confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I am often late finding something to give up for Lent. Nevertheless, somehow, with the timer ticking down to zero, I find that thing to surrender. In the spring of 2020, though, because of a global pandemic, I reluctantly had to give up going to my beloved house of worship. I suspect that, so far as their respective houses of worship are concerned, the majority of readers were required to make a similar sacrifice. Yet, thankfully, the new reality brought forth by the pandemic didn’t mean we gave up on being Church.

As the Director of Music for St. Monica Catholic Community in Santa Monica, California, I am blessed beyond measure to be part of a community that not only cherishes vibrant liturgical celebrations, but is also situated in the heart of the world’s entertainment industry. As such, if you threw a Breaking Bread missal (but please don’t) you would likely hit an amazing singer or instrumentalist. I, like our community, benefit tremendously from this. This, along with our dynamic pastor (a newly minted octogenarian who could run laps around seminarians), is much of the reason why, prior to the pandemic, our weekly livestreamed liturgy would receive up to 1,000 viewers.

We all felt we were building something special together. However, this came to a screeching halt when I received a phone call from my parish administrator that, because we could no longer be in the church due to COVID-19, all music was to be suspended until further notice.

Greater tragedies were, of course, found in most every newspaper headline. Nevertheless, we feared we were about to lose this experience of spiritual assembly that we’d been building at St. Monica’s and were so passionate and determined to continue to share with our community. While wondering if we would still be able to continue to celebrate Mass, we also began to wonder if we could find new ways to embody the gift of “full, active, and conscious participation” given to us in the Second Vatican Council.

Every biblical translator has had to wrestle with the tension between the literal translation of a text and the unique poetry contained within the original language. So often as liturgists, we can be focused only on the rubrics when very often we are called to be poets. Church documents on music in liturgy discourage us from using pre-recorded music at Mass. That’s the letter of the law—but the spirit of the law is that liturgy is a living and breathing ritual that calls for maximal participation. And the instruction itself uses the word ‘normally’—these are hardly normal times.

And so, in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy, we set out to create video content that would keep our community engaged and participating in Mass. For the first week “without music,” I recorded all the tracks to “Into the Desert” by Curtis Stephan from my home project studio. I had students from our high school choir self-record videos of themselves singing to the track. I then extracted audio from their selfie videos and dropped these into my recording session. After mixing it all together, one of our amazing livestream videographers cut together a video not unlike what you might see on YouTube - multiple screens of different singers and instrumentalists stitched together as if playing together in the same moment. We were able to recreate the essence of what we had achieved pre-pandemic: multiple individuals came together to create something larger than their parts. This was the beginning of offering the Mass during these times. While our community was all viewing from home, they were still invited into song. Though the virtual “play” button was pressed, we were led in song by faces familiar to us. While so much uncertainty persisted, this felt like home. Not the homes each of us were confined to, but the spiritual home to which we belonged.

For years we have been invited into people’s homes via livestream. People who are ill or homebound, and even those who are interested in being a part of our community’s life of faith from afar, were able to tune in and live comment during liturgies. But without an assembly-filled church building with diverse liturgical ministers participating, how would we truly enact the principles of “full, active, and conscious participation?” How could we rise to the moment and provide an opportunity to encounter the Divine in a way that didn’t consign congregants to the role of spectator?

In a socially-distanced, emergency brainstorming conclave, we decided that instead of having a celebrant proclaim the readings from the church, we would flip the liturgical script: we would invite people’s homes into the church. This was our big aha moment. We would explore every way we could get as many people involved in Mass as possible. Lectors would create sacred spaces in their homes from which to proclaim Scripture, cantors would raise their arms from their homes to invite the assembly into song, and we would all recite together a prayer of spiritual communion. But the physical space of the church was still lacking, so we decided to put a screen on in the church so that celebrants could feel the presence of the assembly.

During this process we set several rules for ourselves: music still had to serve the liturgy, meaning that songs should still accompany the ritual action. We did not want to simply intercut the livestreamed liturgy with pre-recorded videos. The music had to live and breathe in accord with the liturgy.

But there was still more to be done, more ways in which we could bring the experience of Mass from our homes and into the church.

On Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Last Supper, we especially longed for Communion together. We were invited to wash the feet of those who were sheltered in place with us, or if we were alone, to join in song and see images on the screen of health care workers from our community being Christ to a world in need. At the Easter Vigil, we recounted all of salvation history in Scripture and song, and heard from candidates and catechumens on how they longed to receive the sacraments. On Easter Sunday, we celebrated an empty tomb. And like doubting Thomas and the other disciples, we were locked in the shelters in our own uncertainty and fear, and, through Mass, Jesus presented himself to us in our homes so that we could again encounter the risen Christ. On the Ascension of the Lord, our pastor joked that the Ascension was Jesus starting to work from home, as well. On Pentecost Sunday, we celebrated the birthday of the Church, in tiny faith communities of our homes that were probably not all that different from what it must have been like for early believers before churches as we now know them were built to house the holy. We lived the liturgy in a new way that harkened back to something we may have lost along the way.

And when the most sacred of our liturgies were over, only then did we realize what had happened. More than 35,000 people had watched and participated with us for Triduum and Easter alone. Yes, prior to the pandemic, we had a weekly livestream, but the pandemic forced us to reimagine it. This brought our community together to celebrate Mass in a whole new way. Our greatest fear was losing people but instead we steadily and significantly grew. People from all over the world joined us online. We received countless messages of gratitude and were completely humbled by the universality of our Church and the moment.

Liturgy means the work of the people - and when the people must work from home, they will find new ways of getting the job done. It is my belief that we will continue to rise to what comes our way in this rapidly changing new reality and that we will do it with the same joy and curiosity that guided us in the spring of 2020. The late Maya Angelou once said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” That is what ritual is for us. It is our song, and even if we are forced to move locations, we will continue to sing.

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Kevin Keil
Jeffrey Bonilla

The writer is the Director of Music for St. Monica Catholic Community in Santa Monica, California.