(This is Archbishop Wilton Gregory's “What I Have Seen and Heard” column for the June 11, 2020 Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington.)
They have become something of a cottage industry for lots of folks providing both profit and engendering goodwill. I received three of them as a gift from a dear friend in Atlanta – including one that displayed the Coca-Cola emblem. A group of women religious here in the Archdiocese of Washington sent me another one, and then one of my priests gave me a present of three each with a stylish designer pattern.
Masks have entered all of our lives, and even if we might find them to be intrusive and uncomfortable, they will probably be around for awhile. We wear them as a means of protecting not only ourselves but equally important those who may be particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. We wear them in supermarkets, in public places, at church and even when we just take a leisurely stroll outside. They are everywhere to be found.
I suspect they are now part of our new normal for the time being. Some people find them particularly unpleasant – especially for those who wear eyeglasses and then have them fogged up because of their masks. Nonetheless, they will be present in our lives for a while – no matter how irritating they might be.
Masks not only protect us; they conceal us – at least our full facial identity. When you wear a mask, you cover up part of your facial character. People can’t see if you’re smiling or frowning. Masks usually reveal only your eyes. That’s what I find most annoying, I can’t see the facial expressions that often tell what the heart is suggesting.
Eyes themselves can be expressive if they combine with a great grin or a sorrowful down-turned mouth. Youngsters can roll their eyes in exasperation at a request or command, but the entire face tells a story that only one part cannot fully display.
Jesus told His disciples that the angels of the little innocent ones gazed upon the face of His heavenly Father (Matthew 18:10). Stephen, the first martyr, displayed the face of an angel which only infuriated his opponents (Acts 6:15) and prompted them to stone him to death. Our masks, while necessary for the moment, prevent others from seeing the feelings of the heart.
As we begin to have public Masses again, I see people wearing their masks at church – and that’s as it should be for everyone’s safety. But when they receive the Body of Christ, they must lower those masks to take in the Precious Presence of the Lord. During those brief moments, I get a glimpse at the full face of gratitude and joy that accompanies their reception of the Eucharist.
I suspect we’ll all be very happy when masks are not required anymore and the threat of the coronavirus is finally eliminated. That joy will not simply be because of the removal of an inconvenient personal physical barrier, but because our full identity will once again be made visible for all to see and to behold.
When that day dawns, I hope that we will save one or more of the masks that we might have collected as reminders of this extended moment in our lives. Like other mementos that people hold onto, perhaps they will fill our hearts with gratitude for having endured this long time of trial and maybe even give us reasons to have a full-face smile and to praise God for His goodness and love.