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Parishes saw a surge in attendance for Easter Masses this year

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In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a pall over the Easter and Holy Week liturgies, the apex of the Church’s liturgical year.

But this year, the Diocese of Nashville celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a resurrection of its own as a surge of parishioners returned to in-person celebrations of Holy Week and Easter liturgies and services.

“It felt like we had a year-long Lent that ended with a beautiful Easter,” said Father Austin Gilstrap, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville and Vocations Director for the diocese. “It made that weekend so much more beautiful and sweeter.”

People have been gradually returning to in-person Masses throughout Lent, pastors reported. And some parishes were near capacity with social distancing protocols in place.

“We had standing room only at the 11 a.m. Mass on Sundays and almost for the 8:30 Mass for months,” said Father Michael Fye of St. Ann Church in Nashville. “I expected maybe a 20 percent jump for Easter. I think we had something like an 80 percent increase.”

“I think it’s probably a combination of people saw less threat from the virus, but also people being really hungry to come back to Mass in person to receive the Eucharist,” said Father Justin Raines, pastor of St. Christopher Church in Dickson and dean of the Northwest Deanery for the diocese.

There was a surge in attendance for Palm Sunday after Bishop J. Mark Spalding lifted the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. 

“People looked to the bishop for assurance that now it was safe to come back,” Father Gilstrap said.

“Everything started on Palm Sunday. We saw so many people excited,” said Father Jean Baptiste Kyabuta, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Madison. “We even ran out of palms. That was a good beginning.”

The growing number of people returning to in-person services continued throughout the Triduum, climaxing with the Easter Masses.

At St. Christopher, the turnout of the two Easter Sunday Masses was about 200 people at each, Father Raines said. “It was very big for us,” he said. This was only the second Easter Father Raines has celebrated publicly as St. Christopher’s pastor. “It may have been the most people I’ve ever seen at St. Christopher.”

Our Lady of the Lake added an Easter Sunday Mass at 9:30 a.m. in the parish’s St. Joseph Hall to provide more social distancing, but still had about 900 people at the 8:30 a.m. Mass and 800 at 11 a.m. The church holds about 1,100 people.

Father Gilstrap was appointed as Our Lady of the Lake’s pastor in July 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. The Easter crowds were the largest he’s seen since becoming pastor, he said.

Easter and Holy Week this year was a sharp contrast to 2020 when the pandemic forced the suspension of public liturgies.

“It was surreal and sad last year,” Father Gilstrap said.

“Parishioners felt we had deserted them,” Father Kyabuta said. “Is the Church afraid? Who’s going to give us comfort?”

It was sometimes hard to explain that the decision was made to protect everyone, he said. When the diocese announced guidelines for the resumption of public celebrations of Mass last spring, “that was very helpful,” Father Kyabuta said. “I felt some unity and mutual understanding and support.”

“It felt like we missed Holy Week last year,” Father Raines said. “It was difficult not to be able to have the most solemn celebration with the people. It was definitely a joy to be able to do that with the people this year.”

“Being able to baptize those catechumens at the Easter Vigil, their witness was incredible,” Father Gilstrap said. “Even with COVID they worked very hard to learn the faith. I thought that was a beautiful witness from them.”

Even as more people return, parishes will continue with safety protocols such as wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and cleaning the church between Masses.

“We’ve been able to see our precautions worked over the last year,” Father Gilstrap said. “Ultimately we’re following the people’s lead about what they’re comfortable with.”

Public celebrations of the liturgies of Easter and Holy Week returned this year with people all across the Diocese of Nashville returning to churches to worship together. There were no public celebrations of the Holy Week and Easter liturgies in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions. Bishop J. Mark Spalding restored the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days in time for Holy Week this year, and parishes saw an increase in attendance. The Triduum began on Holy Thursday with the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Parishes marked Good Friday with the Veneration of the Cross and Stations of the Cross. Holy Saturday saw the Easter Vigil Mass celebrated, during which people joined the Church. And on Easter Sunday, the Church celebrated the Resurrection of Lord. Photos by Rick Musacchio, Theresa Laurence and Andy Telli

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