SAN JUAN — There were six people in the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle for Saturday morning Mass: two journalists, a priest, the sacristan, an organist and a security guard.
There were no prayer candles lit. No altar servers. No mariachis.
No pews creaked; there were no coughs or quiet whispers. The priest’s Our Father was echoed only by the voices of the sacristan, the organist and the security guard, their quiet prayers lost in the immense stone shrine.
Bishop Daniel E. Flores said he wasn’t aware that Mass had ever been celebrated in the basilica without a congregation of worshippers.
“It will be a great… ” Flores said, pausing to think for a moment, “A great lack that people will experience.”
“There are people, and I understand it, who will weep because they cannot go to Mass.”
Like people of every faith in the Rio Grande Valley, Catholics are struggling to cope with being separated from their holy places and religious traditions by the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when many people need those institutions the most.
A trio stood outside the basilica Saturday, facing the inscrutable stone of the shrine’s south wall, praying a rosary in Spanish. Another man knelt, hands clasped, on the pavement before a stained glass window, just as opaque as the masonry around it. Occasionally the doors rattled as someone who hadn’t heard — or maybe just hadn’t believed — that the basilica would be closed tried to get in. No dice.
Inside, the security guard, a young man, would take a break from making his rounds occasionally, kneeling and closing his eyes behind his clasped hands, deep in prayer. The sacristan aided the priest when the priest needed aid, the organist played like he would any other Saturday.
The Mass felt surreal, like a dress rehearsal, although it’s how every Mass will feel for the foreseeable future. Maybe until Easter; maybe past Easter.
“Let us offer each other, wherever we are, the sign of peace,” the priest said.
The sacristan and the security guard give each other a wave. Then the security guard turns toward this writer and waves. I wave back awkwardly. We both break into a grin; it still feels absurd to forgo shaking hands in Mass when people have been doing it all their lives.
There’s a lot in that wave. That wave says that whatever the new normal is, worship will adapt, and in the Valley worship is adapting. Aided by technology, social media and sheer ingenuity, people of all faiths are finding ways to pray through the pandemic.
Saturday’s Mass, for example, was live streamed on Facebook. Sunday’s will be too. Priests have taken to Facebook to share sermons and celebrate Masses and keep their flock informed on how the diocese will navigate the pandemic.
“That’s an important way for people to stay connected to their churches,” Bishop Flores said.
Other religions are taking similar steps to proselytize to their congregations. Rabbi Asher Hecht with Chabad RGV says the Jewish community in the Valley has also postponed any sort of gatherings.
“The first thing that God wants us to do is to protect our bodies and our health. We have a teaching from our great sages that says that: ‘A small hole in the body is a great hole in the soul,’” he said. “So while we want to feed the soul with prayers and bible classes and gatherings, the soul can only be fed if the body is healthy, so the priority right now is to make sure that everyone’s healthy.”
Asher says the Jewish community in the Valley will also be relying on the internet.
“Technology is a gift that God gave to the world, and if it’s going to be used for good things, this is the time where we’re going to take this gift and use it to the utmost,” he said. “We’re going to have all our bible classes so people can stay connected through technology. We’re at a time right now when faith is very, very important, because people are very concerned and very worried. We want to be able to help with that.”
Other problems require more innovative solutions, like the Passover Seder, an important ritual feat in the Jewish faith that will be celebrated in early April.
“We have a yearly Seder coming up for Passover. Instead of hosting it in a public form, we’ll be doing Seder kits to-go,” Asher said. “We’ve been able to organize a professional kit that’s going to have all the traditional items that are needed for the holiday, and we’re going to allow individuals to come pick them up on a one-on-one basis and they’ll be able to do the Seder at home. There’ll be a step by step guide of how to do it … this way people can still celebrate it.”
St. John’s Episcopal in McAllen is also planning on relying on a drive-thru concept for worship; they’ll be trying it out for the first time Sunday.
“We’re doing drive-in church,” Rev. Rod Clark said. “You’ll tune your radio station to our low-power FM signal and people will stay in their cars. We’re not able to do communion this way, but we’re able to gather and worship together.”
According to Clark, the challenge of worshipping from your sedan is interaction.
“In our Episcopal tradition, like a lot of liturgical churches, a normal service requires the congregation to participate,” he said. “There’s a back and forth between the person leading worship and the congregation gathered there; the leader says something, the congregation says something. We all do this thing together, it’s all participatory, there’s no passive audience in our tradition, which makes it a challenge to do a drive-in service where everybody’s in their cars.”
To overcome that, St. John’s is trying something Clark calls “auto participatory worship.”
“Instead of saying Amen, which I hope people will say at the appropriate time throughout the service, they’ll also honk their horn. So there’ll be a lot of horn-honking, I hope we don’t get complaints from the neighbors on Sunday,” he said. “We do a corporate confession where everybody says this confession prayer together; during that we’re going to turn on our windshield wipers and wash our windshields as kind of a sign of cleansing and being made clear again. During specific prayers we’ll turn our flashers on, our hazard lights.”
Clark says although the service will also be livestreamed, praying in the parking lot will help keep it rooted in tradition.
“I don’t want church to feel as though church is now gone and I just stay at home and watch it, so we wanted to find a way to still gather together,” he said. “To leave our homes for a little while, still staying distant, but not isolated. To come together and see each other, and have some sense of having a way to gather on Sunday because that’s what we do.”