Extraordinary times in Ordinary Time: Public Masses amid a pandemic

A bottle of hand sanitizer is seen on the altar prior to Mass at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Washington July 11, 2020. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — To resume public Masses during the coronavirus pandemic, dioceses have issued guidelines to be followed by parishes. The Archdiocese of Washington’s series of protocols, for instance, runs 14 pages.

This story aims to be not quite that long.

With worshippers’ health the key concern, there’s a different way of doing things in U.S. churches, where hand sanitizer has become the new holy water.

Diocesan guidelines vary due to local conditions, and parishes must take into account the size of their church among many other considerations.

At St. Gabriel Church in Washington, virtually every liturgical ministry is affected, except for altar servers. There are none now. No sacristan, either.

Deacon Duane Clark is filmed during Mass at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Washington July 11, 2020. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

That means more work for the Deacons Duane Clark and Roberto Salgado, who take on more duties before, during and after Mass.

“I have to prepare the altar, I also have serve as the alter server, ringing the bells and doing the wine and all those things,” Deacon Clark told Catholic News Service. “We always profess to be at church at least an hour early. Now I really have to be at church an hour early because there are so many things to do,” he chuckled.

“Every week — every week — there’s always something I forget to do. And then we have to clean up the vessels.” He gave profound thanks to Jackie Barnes, the parishioner who trains the altar servers.

Deacons also distribute Communion — after Masses — to the congregants. Worshippers are directed upon entry to pews marked with red ribbons, individuals to the transepts while couples and families occupy the center pews. The deacons go into the pews without the ribbons to distribute the Eucharist, placing the host in the hand. It’s up to the parishioner to find a way to get the host inside the mask, and then inside their mouth.

Deacon Clark had to distribute Communion by himself at the English-language Mass July 12. Word had filtered to St. Gabriel about a woman at a suburban parish in the archdiocese who had received Communion from the parish pastor, only to test positive later in the week for COVID-19.

“I thought, if I had given her Communion and she tested positive, I’m going to have to put myself in quarantine for two weeks,” said Father Kevin Kennedy, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish. “And then there would be nobody to celebrate Mass.” As a result, lay extraordinary ministers of holy Communion may make a quicker return from distributing Communion than expected.

Deacon Salgado said the parish’s Hispanic members “don’t get what they deserve. They are afraid to even go out, they are afraid of the new procedures, they don’t know how to act, so they don’t ask for what they really need.”

At time when catastrophic illness comes, he added, “they were unable to visit the hospital, they were unable to invite people to the wake services or the funeral itself.” The Washington Archdiocese has put a 10-member limit on funerals and weddings conducted inside a church.

There is something lost beyond the loss of “the previous freedom and procedures that we have as far as getting close to our faith or living our faith,” Deacon Salgado said. “Nowadays, it’s so difficult because they are afraid to get infected, or they are afraid — this unemployment is another issue in the community. They would struggle to meet ends —make ends meet — as far as financially, so they were afraid to do other things” because they “worry about food shelter, whatever. ”

Carrie Colella accepted her first cantoring assignment at St. Gabriel during the pandemic. She is a cantor at neighboring Nativity Parish; the two churches have some informal sharing arrangements. But the wife of Nativity’s music director is handling cantor duties there for the time being.

She was familiar with Father Kennedy and St. Gabriel through pulpit and choir swaps, and agreed to pitch in. “I was told he wanted to keep the whole thing to 40-45 minutes, so a lot of things got cut” musically, Colella said. There’s no sung Kyrie, Sanctus, or eucharistic acclamation, and the Gloria is shorter than before.

Colella is taking a regular every-other-week turn cantoring. “It’s nice to not have to do it every Sunday,” she said.

For her own part, music director Patricia Burkhardt has to collect the names of the composers and publishers of the music used at all weekend Masses — one in English and one in Spanish every Saturday and Sunday. Because the Sunday Masses are livestreamed and the Saturday Masses are recorded for the parish website, licensing rules must be adhered to.

Because there is an online audience, not just the small ones permitted inside the church, there are extra microphones in the church. “Adjusting the microphones has been a trial and error,” Burkhardt said. “It’s been a trial by fire, actually.”

Improvements are being made with each passing week, said Justin Johnson — who, for lack of a better term, is the director of the online Masses.

“My dad is the deacon, Deacon Clark,” said Johnson who was furloughed from his job when the pandemic hit. “I’m going to be honest with you. I wasn’t going to church all time like I was when I was a kid. I guess I was too busy. I worked with techno stuff like computers and stuff like that, Just being a kid of that generation,” he told CNS. “How it started was my dad asked me to help him out: ‘I want to do a couple of reflections … Can you help me?’ I said OK.”

He added, “Then Father (Kennedy) got involved: ‘Do you think we can record the Mass?’ … Working organizationally, it was baby steps.”

Johnson said, “Sometimes you gotta take a deep breath and go for it. … It’s been a fun process. We definitely put in some man-hours getting to where we’re now.”

Working hand-in-hand with Johnson is Mauricio Castro, the information technology administrator working for both St. Gabriel and Nativity. Neither he nor Johnson had any experience recording or livestreaming Masses before, but “the pandemic forced our hand,” he said.

Castro’s picked up tips from compatriots in Maryland and Michigan, as well as learning on the fly. St. Gabriel, he said, has more volunteers and better equipment than Nativity, so he’s able to split his time between the two more evenly.

Mauricio Castro monitors video cameras during Mass at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Washington July 11, 2020. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

But his Saturdays begin at 1 p.m. to record an English Mass at 2 p.m. and a Spanish Mass at 3 p.m. or so. But by the time both are ready for posting on the parish website, it’s midnight. Then it’s back to St. Gabriel at 8 a.m. Sundays, so he can set things up for the 9 a.m. English livestreamed Mass. Once Castro’s volunteers are in place and Mass starts, he drives to Nativity Church to set things up for a 10 a.m. Mass there. Lather, rinse, repeat: Back to St. Gabriel to set up for the noon Mass in Spanish, give the volunteers a pat on the back, then hustle back to Nativity for its 1 p.m. Mass.

“All in all, I think I’m done at 3 o’clock,” Castro said, “I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m doing more Masses than some priests now!'”

Tony Wingfield, head of St. Gabriel’s lector corps, did double duty, serving as the sole lector for the July 11-12 English Masses. Pre-pandemic, every Mass would have two lectors scheduled, but few lectors have responded to his invitation to accept an assignment. “We’re not trying to force people back into the church,” he said.

There are no announcements and the deacon has taken over reading the general intercessions, but Wingfield does lead the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed and, on Saturdays, an “act of spiritual Communion” since the Eucharist is not distributed during Mass.

When he was summoned to a meeting to devise a strategy for resuming the celebration of Mass — St. Gabriel’s first online Mass was Passion Sunday, or Palm Sunday, April 5 — Wingfield said attention was paid to detail. “When we do the broadcast, when we do the livestreaming, we want to make sure that we organize exactly what we want to do. We want to have a routine,” he added.

That routine extends well before the start of Mass — which resembles a weekday Low Mass in the pre-Vatican II era, with the priest and deacon entering the sanctuary from the sacristy.

Steve Hawkins, an usher for 27 years, said his ministry’s new normal is “taking precautions and not getting anyone sick or spreading the disease around.” Before Mass, there are “no family greetings anymore,” he added. Customarily, “we’re close with hugging and kissing.”

During Mass, there’s no collection, no walking backward in the aisles to signal parishioners when to get in the Communion line, and “no counting of how many parishioners are there, because if you’ve signed up and you’re signed in, that’s already there.”

Part of Hawkins’ new responsibilities include checking in parishioners against the pre-registration list. He gets to church a half-hour before the start of Mass. The list comes in handy should someone be diagnosed with COVID after going to Mass. He gets there even earlier when it’s hot to allow people to step into the church rather than stay outside in the wilting Washington heat.

“We just make sure everybody follows the rules,” he said. “We escort the patrons to their seats to make sure that they’re sitting at a spacious distance.” Once Mass begins, he added, “I can be a parishioner — until somebody else comes through those doors.”

Hawkins, 66, said his medical conditions put him at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, but “there have been quite a few ushers holding off for COVID,” so he makes sure to volunteer. He’s also an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and takes Communion each Sunday to his parents, who were married at St. Gabriel 73 years ago.

Parishioner Kathy Kilty answered an online survey from the parish, saying she’d be willing to help out after Mass. She’s on wipe-down duty, taking rags and a bottle of sanitizer to clean the tops and the ends of pews. “It’s not onerous,” she laughed. “It’s not hard.” Three people can perform the task in less than 10 minutes.

“I’ve missed going. I’ve been watching online, but I missed going,” Kilty said. “I’m happy to be back, that’s for sure.”

Father Kennedy said he’s trimmed his homilies to six minutes to keep the entire Mass within 45 minutes. Both of the English Masses July 11-12 lasted 41 minutes.

“You gotta be flexible, and you can’t have any preconceived notions of how people are going to react,” he said before the July 11 Mass.

In an interview with CNS after the July 12 Mass, Father Kennedy said the Masses, available on YouTube, the parish website and St. Gabriel’s Facebook page, draw about 500 views weekly. Another 100 now come to church on Sundays. The total of 600 is two-thirds the pre-COVID attendance of 900 over four Masses.

“I feel like I need two heads. One keep my head down, pay attention to the daily details of a crisis,” he added, and the other to look at a long-range vision.

Short-term, the parish religious education and sacramental preparation programs have been revamped. Currently, “about 25% of Catholics come to church on Sunday. They’re making those decisions now — and they have been for years,” Father Kennedy said.

Long-term, “how does this represent an actual, permanent change in people’s behavior? And is the church going to meet people where they are as they transition from COVID-19?” Father Kennedy asked.

“You make sacrifices to go to Mass on a particular day at a particular time. Some people will have the mindset. But some won’t. Those are frail and elderly, for example. Some with children — young children. This is, for them, becoming not only a convenience but a way to enhance their spiritual life.”

Father Kennedy added, “We’re providing a way to keep them connected, although tangentially, to their spiritual lives and to the community,” acknowledging there are some priests who call for an end to posting Masses online to force parishioners to return to the church.

“I’m trying to survey the horizon and see how this is going to be a permanent change,” Father Kennedy said. “I am extremely hopeful that the Holy Spirit has a hand in this. There are opportunities for the new evangelization. This is an opportunity. But where are the concrete examples where we’ve had success with it? And in a way we haven’t tried before — using virtual means? Maybe the Holy Spirit is giving us a key.”

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