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Public Mass Resumes in Florida, Georgia

More than two and a half months after the coronavirus pandemic forced churches throughout the Province to close their doors and switch to live-streamed and recorded services on Facebook and other remote platforms, three ministry sites in the south staffed by Holy Name Province friars are providing a glimpse into what the future of Sunday Mass will look like when all churches and chapels eventually reopen. As one friar described, it’s a little weird.

Hand sanitizer dispensers are replacing holy water fonts, facemasks – and reservations – are a must for entry into the church, seating is every third pew, and prayers are recited rather than sung. Choirs, altar servers, and other lay ministers are missing from their usual posts, and Communion is being distributed after the final blessing.

Returning to normalcy has been anything but normal at Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa, Florida, and the chapel at the Catholic Center at University of Georgia Athens, and at St. Peter Claver Church in Macon, Georgia – all three of which officially returned to public worship on May 31, Pentecost Sunday.

Although Catholics have been eagerly awaiting the day when they could pray and receive the Holy Eucharist physically rather than just spiritually, congregants at these locations aren’t packing their houses of worship – and those who have returned are doing so with some trepidation – which has alleviated the anxiety of reopening and has been somewhat of a relief not only for William McIntyre, OFM, pastor of St. Peter Claver, but for parishioners as well.

“People are grateful that Mass has resumed, but they are also very tentative about showing up – not knowing what to expect, with many apprehensive about worshipping in a potential standing-room-only crowd. People are not going to rush back, especially those in high-risk health categories,” said Bill.

At the Catholic Center at UGA, director Frank Critch, OFM, wasn’t overly keen on returning to public worship. “I didn’t agree with re-opening when we did because COVID-19 positive cases continue to climb in the state and here in Clarke County,” said Frank, who expressed concern for the well-being of congregants who might feel compelled to attend Mass after months of virtual worship.

“I phoned people with underlying health conditions, and others who fall into high-risk categories such as the elderly and immunocompromised, and asked them not to come to Mass for their own safety,” said Frank, who has distributed thousands of pounds of food during the pandemic through the Catholic Center’s emergency food pantry – in addition to cooking ready-to-go meals for delivery and pickup – for families facing unprecedented financial hardships because of the pandemic.

Frank acknowledges that low attendance numbers at Masses during phase one of the reopening have “helped iron out the kinks” and provided the opportunity to reevaluate procedures and protocols on a daily and weekly basis.

“Things have been going well with the protocols we have in place. People seem to be heeding our warnings about safety, and most are staying home and watching our live-streamed Sunday Mass. I think many people aren’t attending over concerns that the chapel would be full,” said Frank, noting that average attendance at public worship has been 40 people at each of the three weekend Masses, which include a 5 p.m. vigil on Saturdays, and 8 and 11 a.m. Masses on Sundays – representing a change in the regular schedule to allow spaced-apart services to ensure safe entry and exit, and to enable a team of volunteers to thoroughly disinfect pews and other surfaces.

“All in all, people have been very patient, cooperative, and understanding. Those present are very happy to return to the chapel – and it has been wonderful seeing them at Mass. Without the commitment of our volunteers sanitizing the chapel, we would be unable to have Mass,” Frank said.

Attendance has also been lower than expected at Sacred Heart Parish since Sunday Mass resumed at the church in Tampa, according to pastor George Corrigan, OFM.

“Our in-person presence has been about half of what we planned for – which isn’t such a bad thing. There is no overwhelming rush back to Mass, as households and families in our parish feel it is too soon to return – and we aren’t even a parish with a big elderly population,” said George, who noted that with a church occupancy of 600, even the social-distancing regulation of 25 percent capacity would generate 150 attendees at each Mass.

Extraordinary Safety Protocols
The friars at all three locations are taking extraordinary measures that exceed social-distancing and other COVID-19-related safety regulations to welcome as many parishioners that want to attend Mass – and, more importantly, to protect their health.

Mass in the school gymnasium at St. Peter Claver Church in Macon to allow for social distancing. (Photo courtesy of Bill McIntyre)

While state regulations allowing 25 percent capacity would have permitted 50 people in St. Peter’s Church, Bill moved Sunday Mass next door to the more spacious parish school gymnasium in the Mother Katherine Drexel Center. Although the 25 percent directive meant that 100 parishioners could attend in the gym, he has capped the number at 80 out of an abundance of caution. However, only 28 people attended the 10 a.m. English Mass on the first day back – three Sunday Masses normally draw 500 attendees – and 48 congregants came to the 12 p.m. Spanish language Mass, only 20 percent of the usual Sunday draw for that Eucharistic celebration.

“I think everyone is relieved that Mass is in the gym, which offers more spacing and better air filtration and circulation. But I also think people are a little sad because so much of the community is not with them,” said Bill, now in his fifth year as pastor at St. Peter Claver. “However, the small numbers, combined with holding Mass in the gym, has brought great comfort to parishioners. As people become more confident in the measures being taken to protect their safety and health, that’s when we’ll see an increase in attendance.”

Communion during the time of COVID-19 at St. Peter Claver Church. (Photo courtesy of Bill McIntyre)

Every person five years and older has to wear a facemask before entering the gym, but gloves are optional. Couples and families are permitted to sit together, but others must practice social-distancing. Lingering before and after Mass or in the parking lot is not permitted. Hand sanitizer pump dispensers have replaced holy water fonts at the entrance. Volunteers trained in commercial cleaning are being recruited by the parish to sanitize the gym after each Mass – and, like many parishes, Bill is asking parishioners for donations of cleaning supplies, disinfectants, and hand sanitizer.

The Catholic Center rolled out strict protocols for the protection of its Mass attendees, including a reservation sign-up sheet in order to control the number of people in the chapel. Needing a reservation to gain entry isn’t the only requirement.

A sign at the entry to the chapel at the Catholic Center at UGA. (Photo courtesy of Frank Critch)

“Wearing facemasks has become very politicized – and by no means am I diminishing individual rights – but the safety of the Catholic Center community is the top priority,” said Frank, who has been very clear about the center’s policy on face coverings in the chapel. An email blast emphatically stated: “No Mask, No Mass,” while signs posted at the entrance of the chapel read: “No mask? No Entry!

“There can be no compromise in safety when it comes to attending Mass,” said Frank, who also posted a three-page document outlining the new procedures and protocols.

Sacred Heart Parish resumed its in-person weekday Mass on May 18, serving as a test-run before Sunday Mass was resumed. An e-newsletter to the Tampa parish’s congregants outlined precaution guidelines – including 25 percent of maximum capacity, sanitizing hands when entering and leaving the church, wearing a protective face mask at all times inside church except when consuming Communion, respecting social-distancing of six feet except for those in the same household, and maintaining seating patterns of every other pew.

“Our parishioners are taking these regulations very seriously and have been 100 percent compliant, wearing masks, sanitizing their hands, and following modified routes for Communion and entering and exiting the church,” said George. “Our ushers have spare masks if someone leaves theirs home, but more than 95 percent of parishioners have complied – some wearing quite colorful face coverings.”

Expect Change in Post-Pandemic Mass
If proceedings at the three sites are any indication, others around the country can expect to see some parts of the Mass omitted and the order of worship slightly rearranged.

For example, since celebrants cannot wear masks and gloves during Mass, Communion at St. Peter Claver in Macon is being distributed after Mass is over, when friars can wear face masks and gloves. A cantor is singing hymns without an accompanying choir, and worshippers are being asked not to sing because it is believed that the coronavirus travels a further distance through the air in saliva droplets when someone speaks loudly.

Coordinators and ushers at the Catholic Center at UGA are staffing each Mass, according to Frank, to make sure that protocols and procedures are being followed by all worshippers. There are hand sanitizing stations, seating in every third pew, a reduced number of lay ministers, empty holy water fonts, and usher-directed Communion lines and dismissal at the conclusion of Mass. Even members of the same household are being asked not to make physical contact during the sign of peace or hold hands during the Lord’s prayer.

Sunday Mass times at Sacred Heart have been altered so that there are two hours between Masses to allow cleaning crews a 45-minute window to scrub and sanitize the church. At the end of each Mass, doors are closed until the next scheduled Mass. The usher ministry has doubled in number to help administer capacity regulations and make sure parishioners are not congregating when they arrive or leave.

“Parishioners should get used to being ushered to pews because seating needs to be done quickly and efficiently – which is why we doubled our usher ranks and put out a call for volunteers to serve at daily Masses as well,” explained George. “The role of ushers has become even more vital because they coordinate a system that maximizes seating and social-distancing when it comes to escorting single attendees, multiple family members, or entire households to pews.”

Even the friars are adjusting to the new norms and doing their part to minimize the time that people are in closed quarters, according to George, who says, “We’re keeping our homilies brief.”

No Plans to End Online Worship
Considering that more than 80 percent of the congregation still feel apprehensive about public worship at churches, and with the majority of dioceses continuing their dispensation of the obligation of attending Sunday Mass through the end of June – a deadline that could be further extended into the summer months – the friars at all three locations have no plans to end their virtual worship platforms.

St. Peter Claver will continue to livestream Sunday Mass on the Macon parish’s Facebook page and website, along with daily three-minute live reflections on scripture readings in English and Spanish by Bill and parochial vicar John Coughlin, OFM.

“At first, these were temporary measures to keep parishioners connected to the parish, but we found that they are viewed by more people than normally attend Mass. Since they have been well-received – and because they are reaching so many more people – it demonstrates the importance of continuing our live-streamed Sunday Mass and daily online reflections into the foreseeable future,” said Bill, who views this as a blessing that has emerged from the pandemic.

“Gathering as a community is always the best way to pray and celebrate Mass, but we will continue these other methods to accommodate a large segment of the population that will be apprehensive about returning to the church building until there is a vaccine,” he added.

Bill has found another blessing during this health crisis, making it a point to call 10 to 15 parishioners a day – an effort that he plans to continue even when things return to normal. “They are genuinely touched by the phone call, but hearing their voices is just as uplifting for me. Some of the older parishioners, maybe not as tech-savvy, told me how their grandchildren showed them how to connect to Facebook so they could watch live-streaming Masses. They are grateful that we are still doing that,” the pastor said.

Frank said the Catholic Center has continued to live-stream the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass on its Facebook page for members of the community that are not comfortable with venturing out.

George agrees that remote worship has essentially filled the void. “It’s not unusual now to have 14-hour days, participating in a lot of video conferences and virtual meetings,” he explained. “The silver lining is that people have grown more comfortable with online meetings and communication. As a parish of 150 zip codes, online services have kept friars connected with our parishioners, and our parishioners connected with their parish.”

All three friars agreed that things will likely change from week-to-week – what works one week may not work the next as more congregants decide it’s safe to attend public worship – in which case, they say, will require adjustments to safety procedures and protocols as the process advances through its various phases.

“While it’s good to be back with the congregation, at the same time it’s odd because you can’t see people’s faces because they’re covered by masks. But that will eventually change. Our community is a very comforting group, but right now, no one can hug or embrace. At a Spanish Mass, there was a new family from Guatemala. I felt bad because their first experience at our church was in a gym, sitting spaced apart and wearing masks,” Bill said.

Although not sure what attendance and participation at Mass will be like in the weeks ahead, Bill anticipates resuming in the next month or so the church’s three English Masses and incorporating an additional Spanish language Mass – with all Masses continuing in the gym.

“If people feel confident and are coming back to Mass in large numbers, we will have to consider more options to practice social-distancing and keep them safe,” he said.

George said other options are being explored at Sacred Heart, including an outdoor Mass. “It certainly would allow parishioners to spread out more, but it poses other challenges – people would have to bring their own chairs and we would have to rent a sound system,” he said, noting that it’s a concept that requires more discussion.

Bill extracted symbolism in the resumption of Mass on Pentecost Sunday. In his homily on the first day back to public worship, he told parishioners: “Christ breathe the Holy Spirit on the apostles – which was both dangerous and life-giving for them – when they were quarantined and fearful to leave the house. Like the apostles, there is confusion, apprehension, and fear on our part, as we are quarantined at a time when a breath is now both life-giving and dangerous – if someone breathes droplets of the virus into the air. But with the breath of God, the apostles were sent with power and authority to continue the mission of Jesus. God’s breath is life,” he added.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. Jocelyn Thomas contributed research to this article.

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