Parishioners should still find solace in Mass despite new measures, mental health expert says

May 12, 2020

The sanctuary is seen at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Houston. Parishioners can expect to find changes when they return to Masses after the Archdiocese announced reopening measures in early May. Mental health advocates are encouraging parishioners to take care of themselves as the state begins to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

HOUSTON — When parishioners return to Mass, the church building will look the same, but the environment might feel different. New social distancing measures have changed the landscape of a church sanctuary, even as clergy encourage attendees of the unchanging nature of the Mass.

A young adult went to Sunday Mass the first weekend her parish reopened for public Mass. Her excitement to finally attend Mass since the pandemic began was quelled with anxiety and fear as she noticed others not keeping with the parish’s new guidelines for Mass attendance.

Her mind raced with distraction during the Mass, even as she focused during the Liturgy.

Despite wearing a mask and following every guideline, the uneasiness and concern may have been too much. Back home, she realized she was not sure if she would go back again the next weekend, especially after considering the obligation to attend Sunday Mass was still dispensed in the Archdiocese.

“I really appreciated the (new) measures the parish has taken to distance and sanitize, but the anxiety… it was difficult to deal with,” she said. “I may try daily Mass.”

Life’s stresses can be difficult for anyone, even without the impacts of a pandemic.

As parishioners return to Mass, “we have a choice on how we are going to think about” new changes, Morales said.

At church, favorite pews might now be blocked off, friendly faces might seem distant or unrecognizable behind masks, or those who remain at home might feel jealous of those who can attend Mass.

These experiences are “absolutely” normal, real and valid, according to Anabel Lucio Morales, a licensed community counselor at the Counseling and Behavioral Health Clinic at Catholic Charities.

While she admitted other generations have also endured crises, this experience is “much more troubling” due to the speed of the news media cycle around the world. This can draw fear and worry, she said. In the past, communities only knew of local news, as it took much longer for news to travel from distant regions.

“But we should not be governed by fear,” she said. “We should use wisdom in making the best decisions for ourselves and family, and trust that God has not forsaken His people. We face a real danger, and we must adjust how we live life. But we should not live in fear but rather in the peace that God gives us.”

Parishioners need to remember these new measures are there for the health and best interest of everyone, she said.

“Our mental health is directly connected with all parts of our well-being,” Morales said. “In counseling, we often address the thoughts that one has in order to change the mood and behaviors.”

“Mindset plays a significant role in our response and overall emotional health,” she continued.

She called it a Biblical principle, tying in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans that writes, “we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.”

“Our thoughts must change, and then our emotions follow,” she said. “If we are unaware of how our emotional well-being is, then this can have a disastrous impact in other areas of our life. It’s like driving a car that is running on empty, low oil and flat tires – you’re not going to get very far. And if you do, you’re going to cause some significant damage!”

Related: Churches hold public Masses in phased reopening with protocols

Morales compared people to the Trinity.

“We are mind, body and soul,” with the physical, emotional and spiritual sides that are all interconnected, she said. How we think is going to impact how we feel, she said. Negative or anxious thoughts will drive an anxious or nervous emotion.

As parishioners return to Mass, “we have a choice on how we are going to think about” new changes, Morales said.

“When you get very strict or very rigid in your mentality, then that’s going to set you up for being let down when things change,” she said.

If the focus remains only on all the changes of how Mass will look, then that will drive an anxious emotion or possibly a resentful emotion, depending on how one views the measures advised local officials.
While a more positive view of such changes may bring a different emotion, it might not make everyone happy. Still, it can “bring a little bit more ease and understanding to a changing situation.”

As she homeschooled her children, Morales realized she was getting a chance she never had before, and one that she may never get again in her life.

“It’s a beautiful time to draw out the blessings that we can glean from this experience and just helping those that come to us for help to find that in their life,” she said.

She also encouraged parishioners to focus on what is right and not what is wrong, which she said can be applied to any part of life: marriages, families, work and spiritual practices.

“If we only walk in thinking of all the things that we can’t do the same way, then we’re going to miss out on all the beautiful rituals that we still have the ability to practice.” She said. “It’s so important that our focus stays on the unchanging word of God, on His love, on the things that we still have so that we can stay connected with the Body of Christ even if it means that it looks a little different.”

For more information about counseling services at Catholic Charities and to book an appointment, call 713-874-6590. More resources, like videos about coping during the pandemic, are available online at †