It is Memorial Day 2020. My thoughts and prayers are with all those who have lost a loved one who died while actively serving their country. In the morning, before the sun was up, I celebrated a private Mass (lots of those these days!) for all those we honor on this day, for my Naval Academy classmates who have already gone on to God’s bright glory, and in thanksgiving for all our parishioners who have served and are serving their country. God’s blessings be upon all.
It will be a busy week, so even though it is a holiday, I am taking a moment during the afternoon to prepare this column and have it ready for review by Terry Greene, our bulletin editor and Pam Ferron, our Director of Parish Life and Communications. We all have a busy week ahead and need to “clear the decks” so to speak. In six days we will celebrate our first public Sunday Mass since the pandemic closures began almost 70 days ago. We thought it would be as simple as opening the doors, welcoming everyone back, and business as normal. As we all know, there is nothing “normal” about these days. We have decisions to make and communicate.
Before all this, we might occasionally receive some recommendations, suggestions, or advice about ways to run the parish, celebrate Mass, or the next ministry or event we might pursue. These days there is more; certainly not overwhelming, but with a different tone and urgency. There has been a range of emails: “let’s open up and get going again;” deep expressions of desire for the Eucharist and our Community; cautionary advice and procedures to implement; warnings of opening too early and endangering people; and the one email that stood out. The basic message was it was too late for me. I should have ignored Bishop Parkes and not closed the church. My failure would bring God’s punishment upon me as it always has on “bad shepherds” – and oh…by the way, they had hired a canon lawyer and were bringing canonical charges against me. Given they were registered at another parish and lived in those boundaries, I simply directed them to their canonical pastor.
When I was in the Navy, like every other soldier, sailor and airman, I looked forward to “mail call.” These days, I still do. It is the community speaking and from time to time you get a good laugh from some unexpected source.
Apart from tales of canonical law charges, the voice of the parish speaks through these communiques – and know that we are listening. Listening across the entire continuum of voices and concerns. Just as each of you are discerning what is best for you as an individual and for your household; we are discerning what is best for the community. It is a nexus of Spiritual, medical, personal, and practical – and there is not one perfect answer.
There really is not much debate about the Spiritual treasure and grace of gathering to celebrate Mass, be community, hear the Word proclaimed, and to receive the Eucharist. We are Catholic. This is who we are.
There really is not much debate about the medical…just kidding. There is debate aplenty – even leaving out the fringe voices of plandemic, conspiracy, God’s punishment upon us, and the “no worries” God will protect us – there is plenty of guidance, advice, recommendation and more. Don’t worry I will not be giving you a synopsis of all the above; we’ve all read it. It seems to be most people have staked out a position. Not only is that their right, it is each one’s moral obligation. And you know what? I have faith in each and everyone of you. I know that you have considered it all, taken it all into prayer, and asked for the help of the Holy Spirit (a great thing in general, but especially apropos now at Pentecost!). And you have chosen your next step. You have done what was yours to do – and may God bless you and confirm you in your decision.
We friars have been doing the same thing – and we also get to consider the practical. How will we “manage” the celebration of a public Mass during the time of pandemic? Can we do our part to provide a worship space that follows all the guidelines from Bishop Parkes, the CDC, and other sources? We can. We have the hand sanitizing stations available. We are asking (read “requiring”) all people attending Mass to wear a mask and practice social distancing outside the family/household unit. We will clean and sanitize the church between all the Masses. We have figured out how to (and not to) celebrate Sacraments (Eucharist, Baptism, Weddings, Funerals, Confirmation, and Reconciliation). And working on the details of so much more. One decision is that we will not, for the time being, offer memorial candles. And the tough decision is that we will not open the Restrooms at any point. We did not feel we could ensure COVID-19 safety in such a space.
We had the benefit of already celebrating weekday Masses and so got some idea of the ins and outs of celebrating in these days. The one thing that was obvious from the first celebration was that there would be severe limitations on how many people could be present and still maintain social distancing. There were 60 people in the church (main aisle pews only) and the church looked “social-distance-full.” And so, this weekend we did some realistic estimates about capacity in the configuration of our church. Assuming single seating only (i.e., not considering families sitting together), the church can allow 110 people per Mass. With family sitting together, the seating capacity might rise to 160-180 (about 25% capacity). Here on a Monday afternoon, we still have some details to work out to do what is ours to do. Come, Holy Spirit!
All of this seems to fit the Pentecost readings so well. The first reading is the account from Acts 2, so familiar to every Christian with a large community gathering; a very public event. The account from the Gospel of John seems as though a very private event – family-only gathering. And so shall we be this Pentecost – a community gathered publicly even as the same community gather at home live-stream. And the Spirit come upon us all that we may know what is ours to do! Come, Holy Spirit! God bless.