Christmas Eve was supposed to be nice. I made every effort — procuring the traditional Costco spiral ham and cheerfully doing all of the other Christmasy things Mrs. Claus pulls off each year. What I failed to factor in was the threat of arrest and an epic violation of my right to free exercise of religion. Rookie mistake.
Our state is governed by a petty tyrant. We’ve had a mask mandate since June and because he has unchecked power and was just reelected, he extends mandates in perpetuity. He has done his best to suck joy out of everything. Unlike Cuomo, our southern king issues edicts in secret. He actively avoids the press and has deputized a legion of Karens to help with enforcement. Unfortunately, we ran into one at church.
We arrived to Mass early and sat in our usual pew. As we have done since the church reopened in May, we went maskless. I’ve learned to ignore the stares and no one has ever said anything. But since it was Christmas, I guess all bets were off.
It started with a question meant to be overheard. “Aren’t masks required in the church?” A passing usher kindly explained to the Karen that every other pew was roped off and we were across the aisle, more than 10 feet away. We knew the rules. Our diocese recommends masks when not socially distanced and the state order explicitly exempts churches from the mandate. Plus, the pastor had assured us that unmasked worshipers would not be removed. We were in violation of nothing. Unfortunately, our accuser possessed the traits of the worst kind of Karen—persistence and a dutiful husband. She formed an alliance with a different usher, who pestered the priest into making an announcement. That should have been it.
Undeterred, the usher demanded we wear masks or leave as Karen and her liege gave thumbs up from the safety of their pew. A final refusal was too much for the usher who went rogue and summoned a sheriff’s deputy from the lobby. Apparently we were now “trespassing” and would be arrested if we didn’t vacate the sanctuary. I always thought the deputy was there to thwart a terrorist attack— I guess not. Valiant quoting of the Free Exercise Clause ensued as the deputy escorted us out.
In the lobby, the priest, now up to speed, offered to find us another seat and the usher apologized. But the damage was done. My children, in their matching plaid, were thoroughly terrified and their concern that Santa had put us on the naughty list was a gut punch. The worst part wasn’t that we nearly spent Christmas in jail, it was that not one parishioner was brave enough to come to our defense. Heart-sinking disbelief best describes what I felt.
A friend who was not there reached out afterwards—on the edge of tears— over what had happened in the place where all of our children have been baptized and where relatives and friends have been married and laid to rest. Catholics treat their churches as an extension of home; that’s why nonsense rules have been so hard on those who are desperately trying to get back to normal. It’s why leaving one’s parish and joining another is an ordeal. For better or worse, we invest emotion in physical structures. Being told to leave Mass in your parish is akin to being told to leave your own house.
Playing devil’s advocate, my husband quizzed me as to why I will wear a mask on a plane but not to church. Isn’t that hypocritical? We are called to make sacrifices and be virtuous. Our church’s statement regarding masks calls them “a sign of love and respect for our neighbors.” Are they not?
It’s true; I’ve participated in the propaganda-driven hysteria in order to navigate life in dystopian times. I’ve begrudgingly given in on occasion, even sending my children to school with dehumanizing masks. I’m not proud of that.
But as the months drag on there is one place I’m unable to rationalize masks, the use of which did not appear to have a statistically significant impact on infection rates, some studies have shown. Sitting at the back of a half empty sanctuary in an empty pew, I cannot wear a lie across my face or hide my children’s smiles. I recognize there are Catholics who don’t share this view. But the unholy marriage of mask wearing to virtue has been a tremendous mistake; one that honest leaders will look back on as a dark moment in church history. There is nothing charitable about healthy people perpetuating fear and pseudoscience in God’s house.
We are all called to be saints, Bishop Fulton Sheen said. Saints are guides to living virtuously. But what type of saint exactly? In today’s Church, peacemaking saints have the leading role. No one talks about the bold ones anymore, those who wielded swords, started wars and were imprisoned for defying tyrannical kings. They are violent and passé, a bit embarrassing perhaps.
Crusaders, the medieval variety who carried crucifixes into battle, have been packed away and replaced with uncanonized heroes of the communist Catholic Worker Movement— “saints” of social justice. Perhaps it’s time we dust off the Dark Age stories. St. Therese’s Little Way should be followed up with a lesson on St. Louis IX, the 13th century monarch whose devotion to the defense of the Church is legendary. Building both prayerful and brave Christians is necessary now. Meekness seems futile without the gallantry required to defend it. After all, where would western civilization be without those moth eaten crusaders? Dead. That’s where.
St. Thomas Aquinas deemed Fortitude a cardinal virtue in his masterpiece Summa Theologica. He explained that it must become habitual, that being courageous requires planning so when faced with sudden assault one responds bravely. More simply: you don’t become brave through grace alone, you have to practice. Unfortunately, this virtue is in low supply. Modern righteous warriors like the venerable Archbishop Viganò need the help of frustrated and imperfect lay people willing to take a stand. Nodding in agreement is not enough.
The Church’s collective lack of courage is taking a serious toll. To borrow a line from Churchill, “without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.” Throwing maskless families out of a socially distanced church under the guise of virtue? Requiring reservations to receive communion? Canceling Mass to abide by “virus” curfews? Banning singing? Without the fortitude to stand up to tyranny, the Church is perilously close to rendering not only itself, but the other virtues meaningless. It’s important for all Christians to see what’s at stake. America— which in many ways has replaced France as the Protector of The Church— is the last guard at the gates. American Catholics must not surrender to tyranny.
While I’m doing a poor job with Bishop Sheen’s mission so far, I’m trying, and it’s become evident that the path of a cloistered nun isn’t one I was ever going to walk. As we were chased out of our parish home, I couldn’t help but wonder— would St. Joan of Arc have put on a muzzle? Since she was burned at the stake for myriad crimes, one of which was refusing to wear a dress, I doubt it.
Laura Walsh is a stay-at-home mother and Millennial living in the South. An occasional political commentator, her work has also appeared in The American Thinker.