By Lindsay Steele, Barb Arland-Fye and Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
“Do you know where you’re going?” Father Bernie Weir asked a parishioner walking into St. James Parish in Washington on June 28. The parishioner was not sure, so Father Weir, the parish’s pastor, guided him to his assigned seat.
“Usually people just sit down without thinking,” Father Weir said, looking down at the seating chart for 9 a.m. Mass. “Now, they have to hunt for their seat. But, that’ll work itself out in a couple of weeks” as people get used to it.
Many Catholics returned to weekend Masses in the Diocese of Davenport the weekend of June 27 and 28 after a 15-week absence because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The return to a new normal required adjustments, but parishioners were grateful to be back. Due to physical distancing, face covering and sanitation requirements, celebrating Mass required extra effort — and creativity — from parishes and parishioners.
Mother church opens its doors
At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, greeters wearing face masks welcomed people at the front door while greeters in the gathering space, wearing face masks and gloves, handed out parish bulletins packed with information, including a mini worship aid. A bulletin insert listed steps for ensuring the safety of all parishioners and the changes to expect at weekend Mass.
Red tape roped off every three pews throughout the cathedral, providing a guide for physical distancing in this time of pandemic. The cathedral’s pastor, Father Rich Adam, could hardly contain his joy at seeing members of the faith community returning for liturgy after 15 weeks away. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see you this morning,” he told the gathering of around 100 people at 9 a.m. Sunday Mass June 28.
Father Adam gave a synopsis of the easy-to-follow instructions, including reception of Communion. People were to leave space between themselves and the person in front of them in the Communion line. Hand sanitizer was available before receiving Communion from Father Adam or Deacon John Jacobsen. “Leave your mask on until after receiving the host,” Father Adam said. “You can remove your mask on the way to your pew to consume the host and then secure (your face mask) again.”
The priest and deacon both wore face shields as they distributed Communion. Communicants followed the procedures faithfully, almost as if they had rehearsed. Father Adam said he and his staff worked hard to prepare for the first weekend Masses (4 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday) to emphasize hospitality while ensuring safety. “We want people to feel welcome,” he told the gathering. His homily also focused on hospitality.
Father Adam expressed appreciation for Bishop Thomas Zinkula, and the article he wrote in The Catholic Messenger explaining the reasons for waiting to return to Mass during the pandemic. “He cares for all of us,” Father Adam said.
After Mass, parishioners Kris and Mike Johnson helped with cleanup, wiping down pews and other surfaces, along with several other couples. “This is really a friendly parish and a lot of it has to do with Father,” Kris said.
Parishioner Joe Kelley, also helping with cleanup, said he thought things went smoothly during Mass. People observed the physical distancing protocols and “Communion went a lot faster than I thought it would. I figured it would be like Keystone Kops!” However, he admitted that he missed “hanging out” as a community.
St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf reviewed and tweaked its plans in the weeks leading up to the reopening of parishes for public worship. The parish took a reservation-only approach; parishioners could reserve tickets for weekend Masses online or by calling the parish office.
One small concern Father Jim Vrba had was how to prevent his face shield — which he uses with a mask while distributing Communion — from fogging up. Parishioner Chris McCormick Pries offered a trick: coat the inside with shaving cream, allow it to dry, and then buff the shield with a paper towel or cloth. “It worked well,” Father Vrba said. “It works for glasses too, I hear.”
To prepare parishioners for the new protocols and procedures, including wearing masks, parish staff made a tutorial video and posted it on the parish’s website. Fifteen minutes before Masses began, the doors opened wide — and stayed open. Hand sanitizing stations were set up as guests entered the church building. Usher Jay Ripslinger took tickets for the main entry into the church itself, which was the busiest, and guided parishioners to pews that were not taped off. As the line got longer, Deacon Daryl Fortin and Father Vrba stepped in to help. Other ushers took care of the other two entrances.
Father Vrba welcomed parishioners back, while also greeting those watching the online broadcast. Before distributing Eucharist, he explained how the traffic flow and procedures would be a little different. Eleanor Kiel played instrumental music at the beginning and conclusion of Mass and during Communion because Stage 2 of diocesan protocols does not allow singing.
After Mass, Stephanie Hammes described the experience as different, but she thought things went smoothly. “I am happy to be here,” she said. She accepts wearing a mask as it protects herself and others.
The parish will continue making tweaks to enhance the experience while keeping parishioners safe. The online ticketing system cut off reservations too early, so there were some empty seats. The parish changed the settings to prevent a repeat. Clergy and readers may begin wearing masks with clear plastic to show their mouth for the sake of people who rely on lip-reading for communication. “We’re going to give it a try. It’s all about adapting,” Father Vrba said.
When the Diocese of Davenport announced June 12 that parishes could begin celebrating Mass, with restrictions, on June 22, the Washington parish began to formulate a plan to make going to Mass as safe as possible.
“I’m in all the high-risk groups, and I’m not the only one going to Mass that would fall into high-risk groups,” Father Weir said. “We have an obligation to take care of everyone who wants to go to Mass.” Although social distancing and wearing masks may seem inconvenient, it is only for a short amount of time, he said.
The parish surveyed parishioners to see who was interested in returning to weekend Masses. Physical distancing requirements meant about half of them could attend in-person June 27 and 28. Other parishioners will be first in line to attend next weekend, he said. Father Weir assigned each family and individual a seat, a measure that he believes will help with contact tracing should a parishioner test positive for COVID-19. To make the setup more familiar, he tries to place people near where they would usually sit.
Some parishioners in the weeks leading up to the reopening told Father Weir they would not wear a face covering to Mass, despite diocesan protocols. He told The Catholic Messenger that individuals who refuse to follow the safety guidelines will not be assigned seats at St. James. He hopes those who feel the rules are too restrictive will reconsider.
“I’ve made clear the expectation that we are following the guidelines,” he said. “One of these days it’s going to end,” Father Weir said of the pandemic. “What’s important is that we continue to offer praise to our God.”
Check for changes
Parishioners should not take for granted that their parish is celebrating Mass at the same time as scheduled before the COVID 19 pandemic.
Some parishes may have suspended Masses, also. Please check with your parish about times and dates for daily and weekend Masses.
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