And then came Friday, Torres’s final Mass — at least for now.
“I feel sad. It may seem fanatical to some, but for me this is a very special time of connection with God every day,” Torres, who went Friday morning with her 11-year-old son, said of the closures that are scheduled through March 27. Catholics, she noted, “believe Jesus is literally present in Communion. You can’t get that on TV.”
Fear of the contagion — and orders from government officials to limit or ban large gatherings — had religious leaders first altering, then canceling, access to rituals that for millions are sustenance that can feel as basic as food or water.
Houses of worship closing until further notice means empty confession booths. No Communion. No synagogue minyan, the 10-person quorum required by Judaism for certain key prayers, including the one mourners recite for the dead. And for many who are less ritually strict, the absence of a time they set aside in a place that to them feels holy.
“It really is a sense of deprivation,” said Sarah Bartel, 42, who lives with her husband and five children outside Seattle, where the Catholic archbishop on Wednesday became the first in the country to suspend all public Masses. Bartel usually attends Mass three times a week. Not to have that sacramental contact with God on a weekly or daily basis, especially during Lent, is a deep loss, she said. “We believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are in the mystery of the Mass — it’s at the heart of our lives.”
Religious leaders first had wrestled with adjustments to make worship more hygienic.
Priests substituted individual wafers for the loaf of bread they typically used for Communion. Bishops ordered the end of shared cups of wine that in some churches are considered akin to Jesus’ blood; in others, they primarily represent his presence. Rabbis halted the ritual kissing of the mezuzah, the small containers on doorways in Jewish buildings that contain the prayer of Shema. They also stopped the touching of fringes of one’s prayer shawl — after kissing them — to the first letter of the Torah section from which a community reader is about to read. They also stopped the touching of fringes of one’s prayer shawl — after kissing them — to the first letter of the Torah section from which a community reader is about to read.
“The rabbi requested we do a drive-by. You hover your hand [over the Torah scroll] but don’t touch the Torah,” said Sandy Reinhard, 76, a semiretired attorney in Weston, Fla. Those changes have been in place for a couple of weeks, Reinhard said, as have the cancellation of many synagogue events, such as a weekly scripture conversation.
“Other than the curtailment of the social connection, it’s not a major impact yet. It may become different,” he said.
The decision was agonizing for many religious leaders.
On Wednesday, after the Episcopal dioceses of Washington and Virginia announced they would be shutting their churches — including in the Maryland suburbs of Washington — to prevent the virus from spreading, Bishop Eugene Sutton of the neighboring Diocese of Maryland issued a statement saying he could not follow suit.
“To deny the Holy Eucharist to people on a regular basis in worship would present a serious theological challenge to a sacramentally formed community,” Sutton wrote.
Within 24 hours, however, Sutton noted that the state of Maryland had closed schools temporarily — it also banned large gatherings — and said services would be suspended until March 27 in his diocese, which covers northern and central Maryland.
“He raised a very good point. In a time of crisis, when it feels like everything is coming apart, we lean on our community and religious rituals to give us frame of meaning and a promise to hold fast to beyond the current crisis,” said the Rev. Anjel Scarborough, interim rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Owings Mills, outside Baltimore.
Scarborough said the upending of worship services has triggered a kind of grieving, like Americans are doing for the countless weddings, sports events, graduations, trips and other planned events that have been canceled in the hopes of stopping the virus. As a priest, she worries most about the sense of disconnectedness and increased risk of people becoming depressed.
“We’re in Lent, contemplating the reality that we are dust and to dust we’ll return, and this has been a powerful reminder of that,” she said.
Robert Jeffress, leader of Texas megachurch First Baptist Dallas and a spiritual adviser to President Trump, told local TV station KDFW that he would not cancel services: “What we do is more important than what the NBA is doing.”
Jennifer Perrow, who attends Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church, said she felt a loss that services at her church were being canceled. But she was buoyed by the reminder from a pastor friend to focus on things like checking on elderly neighbors.
“At its best, church is a community of people who care for each other and who love and worship God. All of those things can happen even when people can’t gather in a building. I can pray, I can read my Bible, support my neighbors and elderly,” Perrow said. “The fact that the building is closed has no bearing on my ability to do those things.”
This isn’t the first time such conversations have unfolded. 9 Marks, an evangelical ministry for training pastors, this week published a history of how churches responded in 1918 when the government shut down public gatherings because of the Spanish flu. The piece quoted a letter to the editor in the Evening Star — a Washington newspaper — by a D.C. pastor.
“Nothing has so contributed to that state of panic which has gripped this community as the fact that the normal religious life of our city has been disorganized,” the letter read, according to the 9 Marks piece. City commissioners had used only “materialistic grounds” to argue for the closure, the letter read. “That prayer had any efficacy in the physical world was an idea that was given no hospitality” by the commissioners.
As much as she is missing church, Torres said she is reminded that regular people are the church, just as much as the building and the clergy.
“Striving for holiness in everyday life is something we’re all called to,” she said. “I try to be connected with God as I do the insurance papers and do the dishes and teach my kids. … That’s what I try to do and it’s not limited to Mass. I don’t at all feel I don’t have contact with God.”
Until the churches reopen, Torres will practice a tradition called “spiritual Communion,” in which she appeals directly to God. There are different versions or people can make up their own, she said. She will say these words:
“I wish, my Lord, to receive you with the purity, humility and devotion with which your most holy mother received you. With all the spirit and the fervor of the saints.”