How Some Parishes are Slowly Bringing Back Public Masses

Archbishop Coakley said that while he understands Catholics’ fear, anger and frustration during these past two months of suspended Masses, he also encouraged them to think of their time away as a way of serving others.

Empty cathedral in Switzerland.
Empty cathedral in Switzerland. (photo: Shutterstock)

DENVER, Colo. — On Sunday, March 15, Nebraskans in the Diocese of Lincoln still had a choice of whether or not they wanted to attend Mass and risk possible exposure to coronavirus.

By the next day, they didn’t. Public Masses in the diocese were canceled, as they soon were throughout the country due to the pandemic.

Now that curves of infection are “flattening” and hospitals have had a chance to ramp up their capacity and supplies, many dioceses, including Lincoln, are slowly reopening Masses to the public. What exactly that will look like varies a lot depending on each parish's unique spaces and limitations. 

Archbishop George Lucas, currently serving as acting bishop of Lincoln, has followed guidelines from Governor Pete Ricketts in issuing some general guidance for re-starting public Masses. Ultimately, however, he left the decision to reopen up to each individual parish.

One place that has been offering public Masses as of Monday, May 4, is St. Wenceslaus parish in Wahoo, Nebraska, a town of 4,500 people located in the Diocese of Lincoln.

Fr. Joseph Faulkner, the pastor of St. Wenceslaus in Wahoo, said he decided to reopen public Masses at his parish after meeting virtually with the other priests in his area. The Masses, of course, will look quite different than normal - with limited capacity, social distancing, and precautions like no holy water, no hymnals, and no sign of peace.

And in many ways, Father Faulkner said he is encouraging his parishioners to act like it’s the weekend of March 14-15 again.

“From the get-go, we're telling people - you need to make a decision. I even put in my message (to parishioners), think back to - it's March 14th and you're trying to make a decision. Whatever decision you made then is probably still the right decision. If you need to be extra careful for yourself, for your family, for your parents, for your coworkers, for your patients you see in the nursing home, stay away,” he said.

Parishes in the cities of Lincoln and Omaha decided to wait to reopen, Faulkner said. Lincoln has a re-opening date of May 11 for non-essential businesses, and the size of Omaha parishes made re-opening at this point very difficult. Although Wahoo sees a lot of traffic from Lincoln and Omaha and other surrounding towns, Faulkner said he thought he could use appropriate precautions to make reopening safe at his parish.

“St. Wenceslaus specifically is lucky. We've got a nice big basement, so that gets you another 30%-40% seating room. We've got three priests, which is really lucky. So from five weekend Masses, we're going up to eight, so we can do more to spread our people out.”

Father Faulkner said he has even offered to other parishes with just one priest that he can send someone to help them out if they are offering extra Masses for social distancing and are feeling burned out.

For attendance and seating, Father Faulkner said he is blocking off every other pew and is going to stagger families in order to maintain six feet of distance. Instead of having people call or sign up online, Father Faulkner said he is hoping that the extra Mass times, the use of the basement space, as well as the people who choose to stay home, will be enough to maintain an appropriately staggered congregation.

Father Faulkner said he has been grateful to have public weekday Masses before the weekend to work out some of the kinks of the new restrictions. For example, he’s still working on his communion line protocol, he said. He tried a method using the side aisles and then the center aisle at his first Mass on May 4th, and “it was horrible. So I'm going to fix that tomorrow.”

Masks during communion have also been tricky.

“It's really hard to say Mass with a mask on, and then I have to make my Communion, I have to receive,” Father Faulkner said. The priests were donated some N95 masks, which Father Faulkner tried to use on Monday, but the straps made it hard to quickly receive communion and readjust the mask without touching his face or his glasses, he said, so he’s hoping to find a different kind of mask by the weekend.

From his parishioners, Father Faulkner said he has seen a variety of attitudes toward the closing, and now re-opening, of public Masses.

“There's really three camps,” he said. “There's the, yes, amen, be safe, meditate-on-the-saints-who-didn't-have-the-Eucharist-for-years group.”

“Then there's definitely the middle group, which is like, I don't want to take any risks, but I want the first available ‘okay’ to go to Mass,” he said.

“And then there's the, ‘I'm 85. If I die because I went to Mass, thank God’ crowd. Literally the people who are most cavalier are the older ones,” Father Faulkner said.

A Bishop’s Perspective: Oklahoma

Archbishop Paul Coakley, the bishop of Oklahoma City, told CNA that Catholic parishes throughout the state will start celebrating public Masses again on May 18th, with their first public weekend Masses on May 23-24, the Feast of the Ascension.

In a May 7 letter to Oklahoma Catholics posted on the archdiocese’s website, Coakley recognized that while the past two months without Mass have been a painful time for many, God never abandoned his people.

“The gift of the Holy Spirit assures us of God's continued presence in our lives. No matter the circumstance, he is with us. Perhaps the greatest sacrifice for the lay faithful these past few months has been fasting from Christ’s body, blood, soul and divinity given to us in his real presence in the Eucharist. We pray that in this time of Eucharistic fasting, God has graced you with a profound hunger for this communion with Jesus and the members of his Body, the Church,” he stated.
The timing of reopening public Masses was chosen just before the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost “to remind us of God’s faithfulness and to prepare to celebrate the birth of our beloved Church on Pentecost,” he added.

The decision was reached through consultations with Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa, priest councils in the state, and medical experts, “including a prominent infectious disease specialist,” Archbishop Coakley said.

“It won't be business as usual,” he said.  “We will be celebrating public Mass and people will be able to come and they will be able to receive Holy communion, but the churches won't be full. In fact, we're limiting it to 33% of the occupancy capacity,” he noted.

“We've been very cautious watching the numbers and putting in place pretty strict guidelines to ensure that we were able to maintain social distances and practice the appropriate kind of hygiene,” he added.

A five page document released by the state’s Catholic dioceses details the exact guidelines, such as including 6-foot social distancing between pews, the recommendation that all attendees wear masks, and the recommendation that priests have plenty of hand sanitizer readily available throughout the church.

Archbishop Coakley said the document offers guidelines for pastors while still giving them the flexibility to implement the recommendations and requirements in the way that works best for their unique parishes.

“If the church fills beyond capacity, we’re asking them to consider using other space in the parish, perhaps the parish hall, to be able to put overflow crowds and continuing to social distance properly, parking lots, things of that sort,” he said. “We're going to have to rely upon the creativity of our pastors and they have been demonstrating a great deal of creativity up to now, so I'm sure they'll continue to do so.”

Archbishop Coakley said he is asking priests to also continue offering livestream Masses for people who will choose not to come to the public Masses at this time. He noted in his May 7 message that the dispensation from the Sunday obligation still stands for all Oklahoma Catholics at this time.

“We are dealing with an invisible threat to people’s lives, a virus that our brightest doctors and scientists are still figuring out. The ever-present temptation in our American culture is to want solutions immediately and to act quickly, because we want what we want, and we want it now. As a Church, we must proceed more deliberatively,” he said.

Archbishop Coakley told CNA that while he understands Catholics’ fear, anger and frustration during these past two months of suspended Masses, he also encouraged them to think of their time away as a way of serving others.

“We’re really living through a health crisis, a time of severe challenges, and it's impacting us in so many ways economically, and in terms of social isolation, loneliness, the liturgy also. But I think we need to think beyond individual rights and consider also our responsibilities toward one another, especially the responsibility to love and serve one another, to be mindful of one another's needs.”

Wichita, Kansas

On May 3, Bishop Carl Kemme of the Diocese of Wichita announced plans to reopen public Masses starting on Wednesday, May 6, following recommendations of the county’s local public health authorities.

Phase one of the guidelines will last until May 20, and they stipulate that parishes may hold Masses at no more than 33% capacity. Churches will use only one entrance, so that the number of people coming may be properly counted and seated, and six foot spacing should be clearly marked so that people can maintain social distance.

Mass attendees are encouraged to wear masks, and priests are required to wear them while distributing communion. Parishes are also encouraged to keep hand sanitizer available at entrances, and parishioners are “strongly encouraged” to receive communion in the hand.

Fr. Clay Kimbro is the parochial vicar at St. Anne’s parish in Wichita. Father Kimbro said he and the other priests of the diocese have been having weekly virtual talks with the bishop about when to re-open Masses and what that might look like, and so priests were able to give feedback as to what guidelines they thought would work well.

At St. Anne’s, which has 1,200 families, Bishop Kimbro and his leadership team have been meeting and working on logistical things, like roping off every other pew so that Mass attendees can maintain proper distancing.

He said he has also had extra meetings with his ushers, who on the weekends will “seat everyone so that they can make sure that the distance is maintained. That's a lot more responsibility than our ushers are normally given.”

Father Kimbro said the parish is not having parishioners sign up for Masses online. Instead, if more people show up than the allowed 33%, the overflow congregation will be directed to the school’s auditorium, where a second priest - either Bishop Kimbro or his pastor - will celebrate a concurrent Mass, also with social distancing protocols in place.

“We were a little leery of (adding Mass times), because when you add Mass times, it's hard to take them back,” Father Kimbro said. “Also, it's hard to turn people away. They come to the door at 10 a.m. for Mass, and we say, ‘Come back at 1:00 p.m.’ Well, it's a lot easier to say, ‘Go over to the auditorium.’”

Father Kimbro said the parish is working on decorating the auditorium to make it an appropriate place to have Mass, and they are also putting down tape lines to direct traffic and to mark distances.

“There's a lot of work in planning, and it can be a little overwhelming, but we're overall just really excited to see people again,” he said.

St. Anne’s parishioners have been “all over the map” in terms of their eagerness to return to Mass at this time, Father Kimbro said. Some have been signing up to read at Mass, or to usher or distribute communion, because they miss Mass so much and they want to be involved.

Others are a bit more anxious, Father Kimbro said, and he has encouraged those people to attend weekday Masses, where there are likely to be fewer people.

He also added that the Sunday obligation continues to be dispensed for everyone, as Bishop Kemme made clear in his May 3 announcement.

“I do want to emphasize that the current pandemic is far from over. Medical experts tell us that this health crisis remains a very serious threat to the lives of many people,” Bishop Kemme stated.

“Because of this, I want to urge all those in the high risk population and others who so choose to continue to use the general dispensation I am giving from the obligation to attend the Sunday celebration of the Mass, which continues indefinitely during this crisis. Please do not put yourself or others at risk by attending the Masses once they resume. This is my urgent appeal to all in our Catholic Community: use extraordinary caution and good judgment in determining if you should attend Mass. No mortal sin is committed if you decide that you and your family should not attend.”

Father Kimbro said that he is looking forward to having parishioners come back to Mass, even though it might not be the triumphant return that some may have envisioned just yet, with everyone packing in the pews like normal.

“I think everybody was hoping it would kind of be like this post-9/11 experience, where churches are packed and everybody recognizes that need (for God), but we're tempering that, and it's kind of like everything in this virus, right? Our expectations versus our reality - having to live in the reality of the moment and what we're given and just go with that,” he said. 

“But then I looked at the Gospel for this Sunday that we're back, and the first line is: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ So that's perfect.”