It has been a busy week getting things ready to resume Masses in the parish! Hours of preparation and attention to many small details have made this one of the most intense weeks leading up to a weekend, ever. I know there are many questions out there about what to expect, and one of the most important elements of a successful weekend is helping all of our parishioners and guests to feel welcome and comfortable and safe, despite the novelty of so many things, so I wanted to take a few moments to talk about “what to expect when coming to Mass this weekend.”
First of all, while Adams County is “COVID-free”… we have not had a new case since May 19, and do not currently have active cases according to the health department dashboard… that doesn’t mean that we are in the free-and-clear. The disease is out there, and some people, particularly those in the vulnerable demographics, are rightfully afraid of its potential effects. For me, I am probably not as concerned as I should be, but I am very sensitive to the fears and the feelings which have been expressed to me directly by those who are afraid of catching the virus and having a case that could lead not only to hospitalization, but potentially “dying alone” in an ICU unit. This is a very real fear for some people, and it is not a sign of weak faith (i.e., “I’m ok with God taking me now, let’s get on with it!”) nor of overstating the seriousness of the situation, as the death rate for those 80 and over is somewhere over 15%, compared to a rate at or under 1% for people of all ages. Because of the ongoing threat of this illness, we need to be conscious of two things: first, we do need to practice good hygiene as a common sense measure to slow the transmission of the illness. Second, we need to be sensitive to those who are truly afraid for their lives and take their concerns seriously. While we have taken preventative measures by suspending Masses the last several weeks, and we are now entering into a phase where we are restoring public Masses with restrictions, the truth is that we cannot guarantee that transmission of the disease is not possible as people gather this weekend. Accidents happen. Kids put things in their mouths. People sneeze. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are completely in control of the environment such that disease transmission is impossible. Because of this, we continue to urge people who are sick or who might have been exposed to the disease to stay home. We advise those who are elderly or belong to other vulnerable demographics or have extreme fear over the disease to continue to stay home for the time being. The obligation to attend Sunday Mass has not been restored, and it likely will not be in place again for some time.
As for the layout of the church, at St. Anthony we ask that people sit in every other pew, starting from the front row. This is in an effort to “social distance” as our pews are conveniently 6′ apart when we sit in every other pew. Within the rows, families and people living in the same house together may sit inside a 6′ distance from each other, but others are expected to maintain distancing across the rows. Once seated, please do not move or change your place. It would be best for people to sit on the ends of rows, and not have to climb over each other by trying to access the ‘middle’ of a row, even if socially distanced at 6′, but we will see how things work out this weekend. Please be flexible and accommodating. Some people will have to sit in the front rows (often the last to be filled in), others will miss their “usual seat”. Please follow the instructions of the ushers to assure orderly seating.
At St. Dominic, the benches have been laid out in a pattern which provides for distancing. The benches are 8′ long, and so we can accommodate one family per bench, or individuals on either side of the same bench. Please do not move the benches… they should be 9 tiles away from the bench in front or behind the next. Lateral distance has also been fixed to provide a 6′ buffer.
Please enter only through the door marked as the entrance. At St. Anthony, this is the ‘center’ door. (Do not attempt to enter through the side doors.) At St. Dominic, this will be through the north-west door. Ushers will be there to count how many people have entered and to assist people as they are seated.
What will happen when we reach “capacity”? We have set our capacity at St. Anthony Church at 100 people and at St. Dominic’s at 150 people. These numbers represent a best-guess estimate of our capacity and we will discover, as we have blocked off pews and set out benches for social distancing what that ‘real’ number might really be. If people come as families, each ‘family unit’ takes up a little less space (due to less distancing per person) than if a large number of single people or couples come instead. And so, while there is an absolute number which is a ‘cap’… those numbers might be even a bit smaller due to the layout of the worship space. Consider St. Dominic’s… there will be 36 benches arranged about the room, and if individual people come (rather than families) we can only seat one person at each end of the bench, resulting is a maximum capacity of 72, rather than the published 150. If, on the other hand we can seat a family of five on one bench, that allows us to have more seating overall. It is a tricky problem to consider, but one that we are facing. So what happens when we do reach “capacity”. Unfortunately, we will have to turn people away. At St. Dominic’s we don’t have a proper “overflow” space figured out, so they will simply be redirected to their cars. For St. Anthony’s, we will set up the parish hall basement (the cafeteria) to see the webcast, and at the appropriate time, we will bring Holy Communion to the parish hall. I know that this entire situation is less than optimal. We might have to adopt “signups” which many parishes are doing, but my intelligence on this issue is that attendance will likely not be maximal for some time, so we are going to try to welcome people without requiring ‘reservations’ at this time. If you are turned away because of capacity, please do not take it personally. Please also allow yourselves to be counted by our ushers, so we can figure out how to better accommodate the crowds in future weekends. It is possible that if there is a large enough crowd, a second Mass could be celebrated immediately after the prior Mass is completed (allowing some time to clean/sanitize the church). And in any case, anyone who wants to received Holy Communion -after- Mass will be welcomed to do so.
Many people are concerned about mask-wearing… and this is probably a flash point of great debate and disagreement for many based on the conflicting ‘expert’ opinions about the effectiveness of wearing masks. The diocese has a rather nuanced take on this, which I think is intended to keep the peace and provide sensible guidance on this issue. Our instructions are that, when seated in a seat or pew which is socially distanced from the next person, masks are not necessary. Why? Because that 6′ space between people provides necessary distance where aerosolized germs are not an issue. When briefly passing through a zone where another has been standing, this also is considered ‘safe’, and so brief movements without masks are considered ‘ok’. Where the masks come into play is when social distancing cannot be maintained… that is, if we were to be in a crowd where people are less than 6′ apart. In these cases, people should have a mask available and wear one. Therefore, for most of what we do, a mask is not formally required by the government rules, and will consequently not be required when people are seated and distanced from each other. We do recommend that people bring and use masks for other times when that social distance cannot be maintained. If you feel more comfortable wearing a mask at all times, you are certainly welcomed to do so. If you are uncomfortable with the idea that many people might not be wearing masks while distanced from you, then perhaps it would be advantageous not to return to weekend Mass at this time, but rather wait for a more advantageous time to return. One might also consider attending a Mass during the week instead, where there are only a few people in the entire church.
Perhaps even more important that mask-wearing is hand hygiene. Not only should hands be cleaned frequently with hand sanitizer and/or a good 20-second hand wash with warm, soapy water, but one should be very careful and conscious about touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with their hands. This is the most common and easiest route of transmission of disease, and our best efforts should focus on keeping hands clean. When people enter the church, one of our ushers will have a bottle of hand-sanitizer, and each person should take the opportunity to ‘scrub in’ by vigorously cleaning their hands, front and back, and in all the folds and crevices. Our pews have been scrubbed down and there are no hymnals in the pews in order to have fewer surfaces to potentially transmit disease. Try not to touch anything. Consider bringing your own supply of hand sanitizer. An usher will have hand sanitizer available as people get up to receive Holy Communion. If you are not receiving Holy Communion, (where normally one would receive a blessing, for instance,) we ask that you not participate in the line. Please do not rise and line up until the usher directs you to do so, and as you line, please maintain a 6′ distance as best you can in the center of the aisle. Return by the same aisle to your seat. Communion will take a bit longer than usual until we get things down, but we are not in any hurry. If you are uncomfortable with all the moving around and close quarters at Holy Communion, we are more than happy to offer Holy Communion -after- Mass for those who would like to receive at that time instead.
We have a limited number of Pray Together Missals available which run from this weekend through the summer. Hymnals cannot be left in the pews during this time, but you may take a Pray Together Missal with the readings as your very own and keep it. Please bring it back to church each week and do not leave it behind or it will have to be thrown away. For this first week, I ask that we limit the distribution of these Missals to one-per-family. We also have a limited number of “The Word Among Us” which also contains readings for the summer months.
For the first week, and perhaps a few more, we are going to keep the ministry team small… I think we can go without servers and even without extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. We’ll go ahead and have lectors assigned for these weeks and musicians. Lectors, please read extra slowly and deliberately as the people do -not- necessarily have the words in front of them. Think of reading like one would to a young child for best understanding… slowly and with emphasis on important parts of the story. As for musicians, they are aware that the people likely do not have the words to the songs all memorized, so we are asking them to pick as common and simple a repertoire as possible. Songs with strong refrains/antiphons are most appropriate. We’ll layer other liturgical ministries back in the coming weeks after perhaps a little extra training for how to implement some best practices.
It will be odd to be returning to Mass with all of these novelties taking place. Please bear with us as we implement these disease countermeasures as best as we can. A final word that I need to offer is that we need to be very, very considerate of each other, and extremely patient. This is a moment which is filled with anxiety for many people, and the last thing I want to see happening is that through some gesture of presumption or discourtesy or name-calling or shame or anything else that could happen, that anyone might find themselves alienated from returning to church at all. Wounds like that sometimes take years or decades, or even a lifetime, to heal, and there is nothing that the devil would like more than for someone to take offense over some little or inconsiderate action on part of another (or even me) which might light the fire of disunity and mutual disrespect. We must be very careful in communicating our needs and concerns to each other, and we must be very sensitive, not so much in protecting our own ‘rights’ (whether this means mask wearing or where we sit in church or who we are sitting near,) but in accommodating and welcoming and caring for each other. This is the most dangerous thing that I think we face for the weekend as we prepare to re-assemble as the Mystical Body of Christ… the disunity which may undermine our very reason for gathering. We are called to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, united with our Lord in the perfect sacrifice to the Father for all time. This requires us to very intentionally set aside our personal preferences to contribute to a greater unity in the Body of Christ. Please Lord, give us the patience and the humility to embrace this call as we return to worship this weekend!
There’s probably more to say, but for now, this should address most of the concerns I have been hearing over the last week. See you soon! -Fr. Tom Donovan