An old sign advertising the time for Mass is seen on the facade of closed St. Gerard Majella Catholic Church in Los Angeles, California, on May 23 amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: AFP)
In recent weeks, US dioceses have begun issuing their own plans for 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.
In Indiana a minority of Indiana parishes with small congregations celebrated their first public Masses on May 23. It was first time since public Masses were suspended in mid-March due to the coronavirus.
In Minnesota the state's Catholic bishops and Lutheran officials were prepared to resume liturgies at one-third church capacity on May 26 despite governor Tim Walz's executive order capping faith-based gatherings at 10 people due to the pandemic.
But after meetings with the faith leaders, Walz agreed to expand his order to allow worship spaces to be filled to 25 percent of their capacity, beginning on May 27. And the Catholic bishops announced they'd align their plan with the new order.
Across the country in New York, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn announced churches there could reopen for the first time on May 26, not for public Masses yet, but for private prayer and devotion.
Several days before, in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Bishop Michael J. Sheridan gave pastors the green light to resume celebrations of limited public Masses May 16-17, with church attendance limited through a reservation system and with social distancing guidelines in place.
To inaugurate its pandemic-era public worship, St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in the city of Colorado Springs went outdoors, holding a pair of Sunday drive-in services May 17.
The ushers wore yellow safety vests. The pews had bucket seats and license plates. Above the altar was a tent; behind it was Pikes Peak. The homily could be heard at 88.9 FM on the radio dial.
Father Kirk Slattery led the celebration from the open-air altar, worshippers remained in their vehicles in deference to social distancing requirements.
Necessity, combined with some unique St. Gabriel assets, was the mother of this invention.
Father Slattery, like every other parish pastor, was happy to get the word from the diocese May 13 that the communal celebration of the Eucharist could resume on the May 16-17 weekend. And, like many other pastors, he encountered some difficult math.
St. Gabriel decided it could offer 10 Masses per week inside the church nave — five in Spanish and five in English. To keep the spacing necessary to undercut transmission of the virus, seating is limited to 50. The new schedule provides daily access to the Eucharist but still accommodates only 500 people per week – a big reduction for a parish that, before the pandemic, was accustomed to hosting 1,400 people each weekend.
"We were going to be pretty limited inside," Father Slattery told The Colorado Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper. "After praying about it, I was drawn toward, 'How can we get more people to experience Mass?' rather than trying to have 30 Masses a week."
He had only to look outside his parish office window to find the answer — several acres of undeveloped St. Gabriel property. Not every church that has such an asset, but Father Slattery had seen reports of churches across the country taking their services outdoors as a virus-coping mechanism. It could work.
He had another asset at his disposal — a small army of St. Gabriel volunteers with years of experience organizing Briarfest, a three-day community festival that includes carnival rides, food booths and live entertainment. The event is staged on St. Gabriel property and brings in tens of thousands of people from around the Pikes Peak Region each September.
"We're blessed with this property, and with the people who know how to put Briarfest together — it was just right up our alley," he said.
Before the week was out, the parish's Knights of Columbus council had built a stage and a plywood altar. A durable tent was anchored over it, the field grass was mowed, traffic movement was charted, ushers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion were trained on the new logistics, and — with a couple of days to spare — announcements were sent to parishioners.
The roughly 360 people who claimed a spot at one of the first of two outdoor services were able to hear their pastor's voice for the first time in weeks on their car radios, which were tuned to a low-powered FM transmitter.
"Good morning, friends, and Happy Easter!" Father Slattery said to begin his homily.
"This is a strange way to meet and celebrate," he continued, "but let's just take a moment to be thankful for the fact that we are able to gather together again, even if it is unusual and the circumstances are a bit strange."
Even Jesus' disciples to deal with strange circumstances, Father Slattery said. John's Gospel, proclaimed May 17 — the sixth Sunday of Easter — shows Jesus teaching his bewildered followers that soon, "the world will no longer see me" and promising that "I will not leave you orphans."
"Here, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the mystery of his Ascension, and that time of waiting for him to come again," Father Slattery said. "We are still in that time. We are still in that time of waiting for Christ's return. But we're living it in such a way that, as Christ describes, it is one of hope. This is the case no matter what the dangers are, or the evils that we face in this world: that hope remains. He does not leave us alone. The message could not have been more appropriate for today."
The Liturgy of the Eucharist then proceeded in its customary way, with the exception that distribution of Communion was provided to each car's occupants as they exited the church property.
"I feel I was lucky to be able to receive Communion today, which is the one thing that you miss when watching on TV," said Kathy Mroz after she and her husband, Dennis, had received the Eucharist and left the St. Gabriel exit.
TV and online streaming have become the default connection to the church during the isolation required to thwart the spread of the virus. But if they can't sit in the same pew, some would rather watch through a windshield than on a video screen.
"I was more spiritually connected than I am through the TV. It's just the visual aspect of being present," said Marylin Szroc as she left the service. Her husband, Frank, agreed.
"It's not a community unless people are together," he said. "Even though we're all in cars, it's a community. You get to see people, too, that's the other part of it. You feel disconnected when you watch it at home."
The outdoor Masses will be the new normal whenever the weather is not too threatening and as long as the diocese requires distancing measures, Father Slattery said. And he said he was grateful that St. Gabriel was able to organize the first weekend of Masses in a matter of days, because May 17 was the 12th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
"This is probably the best blessing I could have on this day — to be able to celebrate together again as a community," he said.