Amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, a phone screen shows a stream of a Sunday service at the Yeouido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, on March 8. (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP)
Are Christians people who go to church? Yes, but that is not what makes us Christians. We go to church because we are Christians; we are not Christians because we go to church. Being in a church building does not make me a Christian any more than being in a parking garage makes me an automobile.
Now that many, if not most, Catholics and other Christians are being kept from going to church by the new coronavirus pandemic, we have an opportunity to think about the place and meaning of churchgoing in our lives.
Some of us may be relieved at having an excuse to sleep late on Sunday morning. Some see abstaining from church as a regrettable, but necessary, sacrifice for the sake of others. Some are panicked at the thought of not going to church and attempt to circumvent any cancellations of public religious services. Some even see such circumventions as their right, refusing to be told what not to do by civil or religious authorities.
There may be as many reasons for going to church as there are churchgoers.
For many of us, going to church is simply part of our Sunday routine. We go because we have always gone. We go because we fear that failure to go to church will instead mean going to hell. We go for the sake of our children. We go to hear a homily. We go because we can sing without attracting undue attention. We go to receive the Eucharist. We go to meet friends. We go because a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse wants us to join them. We go to proclaim our faith to our neighbors or to show off our faith to our fellow believers. We go because of social expectations. We go to support one another. We go to strengthen our faith. We go to celebrate our faith. We go to be challenged in our understanding of our faith. We go to pray.
Grammatically, the sentence, “I go to church,” is a straightforward declaration. It contains a subject pronoun (I), a verb (go) and a prepositional phrase (to church). But what might we learn if we were to play around with the grammar? What if we were to make “to church” into a verbal infinitive (to church) which we could then conjugate as “I church,” “You church,” “We church”?
In that case, whether we go to a particular building or not does not matter. We go in order to church wherever we can expect to meet the Lord. We church in the world.
So, when we speak truth in the face of a world of falsehood, when we take part in the building and proclamation of God’s kingdom, when we serve our neighbor, we are churching. Paradoxically, we can best serve our neighbors in these days of quarantine by staying away from them.
It is ironic that one of the best ways for us to church now is to not be with others, to not gather. Linguistically, the ultimate origin of the word “church” is a word for “gathering.”
However, we need not gather for Mass in order to church. During the persecution of Christians in Japan from the 17th to the 19th centuries, there were no priests in the country and no church buildings either. Yet Christians gathered as well as they were able in the circumstances to pray, serve one another and pass on their faith to successive generations. They churched. Some have even called those three centuries without church buildings, priests or Mass the golden age of Christianity in Japan, something upon which we clergy in Japan might fruitfully meditate.
One way that various parishes and dioceses (including the Diocese of Rome) are handling our inability to gather in our usual places is to utilize modern technology to livestream Masses celebrated in the absence of a congregation. This turns the activity of the people (which is what the word “liturgy” means) into a non-participatory spectator event that is not dissimilar from now-cancelled televised sporting events.
It is as if the restoration of the liturgy as a communal activity that has been going on since at least 1922 with the introduction of the “dialogue Mass” and which found in Vatican II its firm footing in the ancient tradition of the Church had never happened.
It is time to break down our prejudice that the only real way to church is to be in a cross-crowned building for Mass. In the 21st century, we have many more options to gather. All we lack is creativity.
Businesses around the world continue to hold conferences using the tools provided by the internet. Could not parishes and dioceses utilize that same technology to enable Christians to “come together” for prayer and shared reflection? We could even sing together. We need not be spectators. We can go to church.
Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News and is based in Tokyo, Japan.