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COVID-19: A pastor’s perspective: Reopening of Masses Is Welcome but Presents Challenges

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Father David BonnarOpenings are meant to be a celebratory time. Whether a private business, a store, a stadium or even a church, it provides a time to ritualize with joy and gratitude. Reopenings can be just as exciting and joyful.

During this past weekend, I met with my clergy team and two staff members to address the reopening of our two churches and the eventual resumption of what we do as Catholics. Just a few days ago, our bishop released a 40-plus-page document entitled “Moving Forward Together: Support for Pastors and Parish Teams with the Return to On-Site Ministry and Worship.”

While I know there is much excitement about the reopening of our churches, there is also some great trepidation and anxiety for many reasons. The most obvious concern is that, even though doors of our churches are about to open and public Masses will soon begin, the pandemic continues. Without a vaccine, the invisible contagion continues to spread. People continue to contract the virus and many people die each day from it.

Of equal concern is that many of the solid “pillars” of our communities, who generously contribute their time, talent and treasure for the good of the mission, remain at high risk. Many of these faithful individuals are 65 and older. Some have underlying health issues that present serious challenges should they contract the virus. And yet, they likely will be the first ones through the doors. I worry about their health and well-being. What is more, in many dioceses, the bulk of priests fall into this age range and, therefore, are high risk themselves. There is also the reality that, with any exposure to the virus, there is a mandatory two-week quarantine that needs to happen. Having experienced this quarantine earlier in the pandemic, I can attest that not only is it not fun, but it creates a vacuum in a faith community when the assigned priests are taken out of action. With fewer priests on the bench, who comes to the rescue?

When looked at realistically, this reopening of our churches holds a particular sadness because the Church we left will never exist again as we knew it. The practice of the Faith will never be the same. When we enter our churches, we will embrace masks, social distancing, the proliferation of hand sanitizers and a limited capacity for the celebration of Mass. In our diocese, that number is 25 people.

How does one determine who attends Mass? We are going to use a Sign Up Genius for Sunday Masses. But what about the faithful who attend holy Mass every day? What about a large family whose daughter is getting married? What about a family who lost a loved one? How is it determined who gets a ticket?

Not only will there be limited capacity, but there will also be diminished times in which the church will be open. Throughout the day, the church will periodically be closed for cleaning. Some churches may not be able to open at all because of a lack of staff and resources to do this necessary cleaning.

The liturgies will be different for sure. Some will take place outdoors. There can be no choir, hymnals or worship aids. According to our recently published diocesan guidelines, the liturgies are to be a “joyful celebration in simplicity.” It goes without saying that entering our churches and celebrating our faith will be much different.

In the face of all these changes, I suspect that we might all be different. Hopefully, after this long fast and time in the desert when the Eucharist was not available, we will appreciate more the gift of faith and grace of the holy Eucharist. I know I will certainly behold the presence of the faith community that I have missed so much. It is so unnatural celebrating Mass before a camera in an empty space. The ability to pray together as a community and to reopen our hearts to receive Jesus in the holy Eucharist makes this reopening that much more special, even though it is going to be so, so different.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 15 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

 
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