BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
Even in following strict safety guidelines to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19, parishes celebrating public Masses again as a community cannot contain their joy.
On May 15, 2020, Bishop William F. Medley announced that the suspension of public Masses in the Diocese of Owensboro would be coming to a close on May 20, ending a phase that had lasted more than two months as the diocese followed Kentucky state directives to combat COVID-19.
(The bishop did state in his announcement that he was continuing to suspend the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, citing the needs of those who cannot yet return due to health risks, advanced age and other difficult circumstances.)
Some parishes celebrated their first public liturgies on May 20; others waited until the weekend of May 23/24 to reopen public Masses. Still others are waiting until the following weekend of May 30/31 in order to prepare and ensure they are in compliance for their parishes’ unique circumstances.
Alyssa Maty, the pastoral associate at St. Michael Parish in Sebree, said it was hard to explain how she felt during her parish’s first public Masses the weekend of May 23/24.
“The best way I can say it, is that there was a different presence at the Masses and that the faith felt much stronger,” Maty told The Western Kentucky Catholic in a May 27 email.
Tears during Communion
Maty said St. Michael’s first public Masses were held the evening of May 23 at 5 p.m. in English and 7 p.m. in Spanish.
Ultimately, they celebrated five Masses over the one weekend, including one in the Akateko language for those in the parish’s Guatemalan community.
“I would say people were mostly joyful,” said Maty. “Many cried during Communion after waiting over two months to receive Jesus. That was a special moment to see.”
Following Bishop Medley’s May 15 announcement, St. Michael’s had been working on preparing the church to follow the guidelines issued by the diocese’s Office of Worship. This included permitting the church to be filled to only 1/3 capacity (33%), enforcing a six-feet distance between those who do not live in the same household, and requiring masks to be worn during Mass.
And like many other parishes, Maty said St. Michael’s will continue live-streaming their liturgies for those who cannot yet return to Mass.
Source of renewal
Rose Wheeler, the director of faith formation at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Henderson, said the parish created an action plan to make sure their transition back to public Masses went smoothly.
From a letter by pastor Fr. Larry McBride being mailed to all parishioners, to holding the first public Mass at 7 a.m. on May 20 to “practice” with a smaller crowd, to posting several Facebook Live videos explaining “what to expect,” Holy Name staff felt ready and equipped by the first weekend of public Sunday Masses.
Wheeler said the people were “very cautious” and experiencing multiple emotions that weekend.
“Some entered smiling before I said a word, so joyful to be back in the church and with ‘church family,’” she said.
Wheeler said other parishioners were nervous, asking many questions, while others were nonchalant, not seeing the need for so much change: “Then there were those who reached out for reassurance that all would be ok.”
“The best description of the weekend is ‘welcome home!’ We have missed you while we were apart,” said Wheeler.
Wheeler said that she had been taken by surprise over the past two-plus months at her profound, “aching” emotions while watching her parish’s live-streamed Masses, thinking of all those unable to receive the Eucharist.
But now that they can celebrate as a community once again, Wheeler said she feels “joy, hope and determination as I received Jesus this weekend.”
“Because as I knelt, I prayed for those too fearful to enter the doors, lost in the uncertainty, and without hope,” she said. “Most importantly I prayed for the Church, that she see this pandemic as a source of renewal and outreach to gather the flock that has spread in so many directions.”
Unusual but grateful
Joe Bland, the pastoral associate at St. Mary of the Woods Parish in Whitesville, said that since the Sunday obligation remains suspended, some parishioners have started attending a weekday Mass instead of a weekend Mass. That way, they can still receive the Eucharist, but are in a smaller crowd than on Sundays.
“I think the draw to daily Mass for some is we here at St. Mary of the Woods are a very ‘Eucharistically-centered’ parish,” said Bland. “We have had Perpetual Adoration for over five years, so I would say that is the draw.”
He said elderly parishioners in particular have taken advantage of the weekday Mass opportunity, to avoid the crowds.
“I don’t know if the swell in numbers will stay there in the coming weeks,” said Bland, “but I feel that people were ready to get back to the Eucharist, but were still a little timid of the crowds on Sunday – even young families.”
James Wells, the music director at St. Stephen Cathedral, told the WKC that they celebrated their first public Mass on May 20. Wells said they followed the diocese’s general guidelines, but a small team of cathedral staff had also spent time creating guidelines specific to their church community.
“This weekend, we celebrated three Masses,” said Wells. “5 p.m. on Saturday and 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sunday. Our ‘normal’ schedule had been 7, 9, and 11 on Sunday. We had to change to allow plenty of time for proper cleaning between Masses.”
Wells said their numbers this weekend were well under capacity.
“Under normal circumstances, we have 650-700 people in attendance between our four Masses,” he said. “This first weekend, we had less than 200 people split among three Masses.”
He had been concerned that some would be resistant to the guidelines, “but everyone I encountered seemed to have an understanding that the guidelines were necessary in order for them to be in attendance.”
Besides the “new normal” of safety restrictions, Wells admitted that the return to public liturgies is bittersweet for him.
“While it’s good to be celebrating with people again, it is quite strange as a musician,” said Wells, referencing the diocesan guideline that congregations not sing, in order to prevent the possible spread of the virus through airborne droplets.
“Normally, my duty is to do everything I can to encourage the faithful to sing,” he said. “It’s very unusual and challenging to be asked to do only instrumental music or singing songs that people don’t know.”
Healthy and holy
Fr. Carl McCarthy, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Madisonville, told the WKC that their parish community celebrated their first public Mass on May 26, and their first public weekend Masses will be Pentecost (May 30/31).
He said the reason parish leadership chose to wait a bit longer was “two-fold.”
“First and foremost, Hopkins County, which is the county that Christ the King is located in, has been a ‘hotspot’ for the virus,” said Fr. McCarthy. “The second part of our decision was based on the desire for our Outreach Team to call every household, and we knew that calling 275 households would take time.”
The Outreach Team had been calling to communicate the COVID-19 guidelines for reopening public Mass and to gain from each household which Mass they would prefer to attend, if they were returning at this time. Fr. McCarthy also released a video called “Healthy and Holy at Church | Returning during COVID-19” to walk viewers through the process.
Fr. McCarthy said that one of the hardest things for him over the past two-and-a-half months “has been having Mass with no people.”
While it is still difficult not to be able to shake hands, or give a hug, he is now happy to be back celebrating Mass with his church family in person.
“I am enjoying hearing them respond, even if it is from behind a mask,” he said. “I am enjoying preaching again and seeing their eyes and hearing their chuckles to my humor. I am also enjoying being able to see their face and their joy at receiving of the Eucharist again.”
Fr. McCarthy believes Pentecost is a perfect Sunday for their parish to come back to church, “because we celebrate the Holy Spirit who gave birth to our Church.”
“Our Church, like our communities, is coming back to life after being locked away like the disciples were in the Upper Room,” he said. “I feel that now more than ever we need that Holy Spirit to inspire us and help us to open the doors on Church and hearts wider than they ever have been, so we can welcome all who are in need of God’s new life.”
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic
Returning to public Mass
For all of the Diocese of Owensboro’s safety guidelines, as well as a letter and video message from Bishop William F. Medley, visit owensborodiocese.org/return-to-public-mass.
Live-streaming to continue: Most if not all parishes currently offering live-streamed liturgies will continue to do so for those who cannot yet return to Mass. Visit https://owensborodiocese.org/covid-2019 and scroll down to “Live Stream Mass Opportunities/Oportunidades de la Transmisión de la Misa en Vivo.”