Christmas for the English-speaking Catholics in Cambodia was different this year as it was in most places in the world. Cambodia had its first cases of community transmission of COVID-19 at the end of November and so all Masses were canceled for two weeks during Advent. We were then allowed to resume our liturgies the week before Christmas but with government regulations allowing only 20 people per mass.
We have 800+ persons in our English Catholic Community, and so to give the opportunity to as many parishioners as possible to celebrate Christmas liturgically, we modified our schedule. We could have only one Mass on Christmas Eve and then just two Masses on Christmas morning because it was a regular workday in this Buddhist country. But that was only accommodating 60 people, so we continued celebrating four more Christmas Masses on Saturday and Sunday, which would normally have focused on the Holy Family.
That was still only seven masses for 140 people, and the situation was much the same in the Khmer parishes, so the bishop requested that all the communities at least maintain their Nativity scenes in the churches until February 3rd.
We had not sung in our liturgies since March, partly because the government regulations asked us to limit services to 30 minutes. But to celebrate Christmas, we reintroduced Christmas carols as opening and ending songs, singing with masks and without accompaniment.
During the Advent closure, we had installed video monitors in our chapel so that we could project both the songs and the Scripture texts and other visuals, eliminating the use of paper hymnals and missalettes.
The response to the singing was amazing! The greatly-reduced communities sang with real gusto and excitement, a hopeful sign for the rebuilding of our community.
Our Mass attendance has been disturbing, though. After Christmas, we were allowed to go back to our new maximum of 40 people for a Mass. We asked people to register, sent them an invitation by e-mail and a quarter or more of them didn’t come.
There’s a new church being born. There’s going to be a new normal for the future church. That isn’t necessarily bad, however, and can actually be very hopeful and exciting.
Jesus didn’t come to start a church. He selected disciples and showed them how God loves us and asked them to teach others to love as God does. He promised them the fullness of life here on earth and eternal life with God in heaven.
Over the centuries, though, that movement of excited, motivated disciples became an organization, an institution. The human dimension intruded upon and replaced some of the divine vision. The focus shifted from sharing God’s life and love with sisters and brothers in every aspect of life to attendance at a weekly gathering.
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love” became too often “they’ll know we are Christians because we go to Mass on Sunday.” Participation in too many ways devolved to attendance. And the people’s experience of attendance is not inspiring some to return.
I suspect we’re on the cusp of a new reality in the church. People are not going to come back in the numbers we had before COVID-19. They have experienced life without the Eucharist and many find they are comfortable with that. We’re going to need a rethinking, a new catechesis, a new approach to being the People of God here on earth.