Father Kyle Bell of St. Ignatius of Antioch Parish in Tarpon Springs said he saw Mass-goers “in tears” as they received Holy Communion on Monday, May 11, 2020. This was the first time they were able to receive Jesus in the Eucharist since parishes ceased public Masses because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Parishioners have keenly felt “hunger pains” because of the imposed fast from the Eucharist, according to Father Bell. “Faithful Catholics have missed their Lord, their friend, their brother, their savior in the Eucharist. Indeed, many still feel that pain as many still have to watch Mass online,” added Father Bell.
He also spoke of the pain he and other priests have felt during this time of isolation. “It broke our hearts that we could not share the Eucharist with you.”
In the Diocese of St. Petersburg, most churches remained open throughout the pandemic for private prayer. Some offered outdoor confessions and drive by blessings. But Bishop Parkes suspended public Masses on March 18, 2020 until it could be determined that it was safe to return to normal schedules and public worship.
On May 5th, Bishop Gregory Parkes told priests and parish staff that churches in the Diocese of St. Petersburg could begin to open to the public for daily Mass on May 11th if they implemented certain safety guidelines. Two weeks later, he gave permission for public worship on Sundays to begin on the Solemnity of Pentecost.
“May 30th and 31st will indeed be days to rejoice! Not only will public Masses on Sunday resume, but we also celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and graced them with gifts to courageously live the Gospel,” said Bishop Parkes. “This same Spirit lives in us! We have been given the gifts of fortitude, wisdom and understanding. Let us rely on the Spirit for guidance and knowledge.”
In recent weeks, dioceses across the country have begun the gradual reopening of churches over several phases with the safety of congregants, priests, deacons and other parish staff foremost in the minds of Catholic officials — and with safety protocols in place, including mask wearing and social distancing inside church.
Explaining the need for social distancing, Father Garry Welsh, pastor, St. Anthony of Padua Parish, San Antonio, said, “We know out of charity, we need to care for each other. There are some among us who are weaker than we are. Or perhaps we are a little weaker than others and we need that distance. So, we do that in love. When we do that, we’re doing God’s work, building the Kingdom of God, right here, right now. We do that to give God’s name the glory. It’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s not about me. It’s about each other.”
The gradual opening of churches across the U.S.— with limits on congregation size — have for the most part come as cities and states announce a gradual reopening of institutions, organizations and businesses.
At some parishes, people have been asked to sign up to reserve a seat. At others, social halls serve as overflow seating to maintain social distancing or Mass is celebrated outdoors. Churches are still encouraged to live stream the Mass, if possible and parishioners are encouraged to continue their weekly donations either online or via mail, if possible.
Churches have been asked to remove hymnals, eliminate choirs and physical contact during the Sign of Peace, sanitize seats and pews, knobs, door handles, bathrooms and other commonly touched areas. Many of these precautions require extra volunteers and parishioners who are able, have come forward to serve in this new ministry of hygiene. Even with the best plans, progress is the goal, not perfection.
“Let us show charity, patience and kindness as processes and plans are developed,” encouraged Bishop Parkes in his message to the faithful.
Catholics have felt the regulations and protocols were small prices to pay for the opportunity to be able to participate in the Mass again.
“We have to focus on the reception of the Body of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Yes, it’s inconvenient to wear a mask, not to have a choir, not to sit in close proximity, but these are inconveniences we can endure,” said Regina Plummer, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Parish, Dade City. She and her husband, Sam, are “so happy” to be able to receive Holy Communion again.
David Devore, St. Mark the Evangelist, Tampa, is also joyful about returning to church for Sunday worship.
“Returning to Mass has been a blessing for our family. We are so happy to join our parish community again and receive the Body of Christ! Safety is also very well managed. We feel very safe in our church,” said Devore.
For Jean Gill of St. Matthew Parish, Largo, the first few weeks back to Mass were a bit unsettling as she tried to navigate all the changes.
“What was so helpful to me was to keep looking up at the altar, at Mary on the wall and Jesus on the crucifix. As long as I kept my eyes lifted up, I could see that this was St. Matthew, even though things around me looked very different,” said Gill.
Photo above shows Father Viet Nguyen, Holy Martyrs Vietnam Parish, St. Petersburg, celebrate the Eucharist during an outdoor Mass. To view other photos from other churches in recent weeks, click here.