‘It’s been a time of renewal’: Parishes see the faithful return slowly, cautiously

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People pray during a special Holy Hour at St. James Church in Seaford, N.Y., July 30, 2020. (CNS photos/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

When public Masses began in the Archdiocese of Boston, Father James DiPerri knew what he planned to do: set up an altar at the end of one of the two parking lots at Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, and invite people to bring their own chairs for outdoor Mass.

The parish installed an outdoor sound system in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension of public Masses, for just such a moment.

By the end of July, the parish had Mass outside on 10 straight Sundays, drawing 400-600 people each week. That’s about half the number the parish drew to weekend Masses before COVID-19, Father DiPerri said, but including the people who watch the parish’s Masses online, the parish actually is reaching more people every week.

“Our parish is doing very well, and we’ve made God present, who is present to us,” Father DiPerri said. “This hasn’t been a pause for us. It’s been a time of renewal.”

Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted also has been able to maintain its offertory collections throughout the pandemic, Father DiPerri said. The parish, which includes middle- and working-class neighborhoods, has benefited from the loyalty of long-time parishioners who are mailing in their envelopes and the generosity of newer parishioners who have embraced online giving.

Father DiPerri also kept the church open for private prayer even when public Masses were suspended, bringing in a professional cleaning service every day. Having the doors open allowed people who came to pray to drop donations in the collection box.

‘They want to be back where we were’

M.C. Sullivan, the chief health care ethicist for the Archdiocese of Boston, said Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted is among several parishes using outdoor spaces for Masses this summer.

Massachusetts began allowing church services May 18, Sullivan said, and the archdiocese took another two weeks to make sure parishes had the procedures down. Many parishes waited even longer than that, opening on the feast of Corpus Christi, June 11.

“Are people coming back? Yes, they are,” Sullivan said. “Most churches are reserving very quickly early in the week so that all the allocated spots are filled.”

The Archdiocese of Boston is trying to identify who is attending each Mass at each parish so that they can maintain contact tracing in case someone notifies a church that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, which then triggers another set of protocols, Sullivan said.

“We have to close things, re-deep clean and sanitize and keep the place closed, notify the board of health, notify the attendees,” Sullivan said.

That shows the need for the preventive procedures, despite people who don’t see the point, she said.

“As soon as any bit of normalcy is offered again, they want to be back where we were,” she said. “And we aren’t anywhere close to that.”

Pastors, meanwhile, are encouraged to continue streaming or posting Masses online for parishioners who might have a higher risk or don’t feel comfortable returning to Mass, and to keep explaining to those who do come back why they must keep following the new procedures, which include a mask requirement in Massachusetts

“A lot of people needed education or reeducation about … social distancing, or whether it was safe to be in a closed building,” Sullivan said. “Then there were the gung-hoers that wanted to just go back to the way things were before. We emphasized that a safe reopening would be a slow reopening. For now, let us be grateful that we can have our worship services and sacramental services. … The concern for everybody is twofold: People want to leapfrog ahead and, at the same time, they let their guard down.”

‘People are feeling more comfortable’

Father G. Dennis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and rector of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, said people are returning to church more gradually.

The archdiocese, which includes five counties, has reopened on varying schedules, with Philadelphia County moving more slowly than less densely populated areas, Father Gill said.

“We’re seeing increasing numbers weekly,” Father Gill said. “People are feeling more comfortable returning. We do have people on the extremes, but most of our priests and most of our people are right in the middle.”

Part of the archdiocese’s successful reopening might be because Pennsylvania did not see a big spike at the beginning of the pandemic like New York and California did, Father Gill said, and weddings and baptisms continued at the cathedral throughout the pandemic. The cathedral also has been able to increase online giving, which has been helpful, he said.

“We are trying as much as possible to have the Church be as present as she can be, while respecting the standards of distancing and sanitation,” Father Gill said. “There’s still a lot of anxiety and fear that surround the virus. … The end in sight is the vaccine. That’s the only thing that’s going to allay the fears of people and assure them that we can approach normalcy.”

Father Gill said most daily Massgoers have returned, but because daily Masses are not as well attended as Sunday Masses, social distancing has not been difficult.

‘A learning curve’

The Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, decided to use that to its advantage, said Adam Storey of the diocese’s Department of Marriage and Family Life. When the diocese, which consists of 23 counties in southwestern Iowa, began celebrating Masses publicly, they asked all parishes to hold daily Masses for two weeks before opening for weekend Masses.

“We did that because you usually have smaller groups for daily Mass,” Storey said.

They also started Masses on a county-by-county basis, with some rural areas starting Masses in mid-May and the Des Moines metro area starting last on the weekend of June 11.

“In the great majority of our areas, things are going very well,” he said. “Our pastors are really doing a tremendous job with this new situation. In any time as unprecedented as this, there’s going to be something of a learning curve.”

Church capacities are limited based on social distancing, Storey said, but some parishes haven’t filled the seats that are available.

“We definitely have smaller numbers across the board,” he said. “They’re slowly starting to climb.”

Storey said he thinks the Church has the opportunity to learn an important lesson from the time of the pandemic.

“This has stripped away a lot of the extraneous things and made us focus on the essentials,” he said. “When we have to close everything down, how do we continue to bring Christ to the people of our diocese?”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.