Parishes add Masses, make adjustments to celebrate Christmas in the pandemic

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Pope Francis kisses a figurine of the baby Jesus as he arrives to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in this Dec. 24, 2019, file photo. The pope will celebrate the traditional Christmas Eve Mass with a small congregation, beginning at 7:30 p.m. in Rome so people can get home without breaking Italy’s 10 p.m. COVID-19 curfew. Parishes in the Diocese of Nashville are also making adjustments to safely celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas day Masses during the pandemic.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

Christmas Eve and Christmas day Masses, some of the best attended liturgies of the year, will look different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Parishes around the Diocese of Nashville are preparing for their largest crowds of the year by adding additional Masses to the schedule, requiring advance reservations for Masses, and generally “doing the best planning we possibly can considering how much is unknown,” said Father Eric Fowlkes, pastor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.

The Cathedral will have five Masses on Christmas Eve, Thursday, Dec. 24, and one on Christmas day, at 10 a.m. The Christmas Eve Masses will be at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. (one Mass in the church and one in the Fleming Center), 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. The 10 p.m. Mass will be celebrated by Bishop J. Mark Spalding and livestreamed and re-broadcast later.

“Because of the unique nature of the Cathedral we are not doing reservations,” Father Fowlkes said. Cathedral receives many visitors, including travelers staying in nearby hotels and others who don’t have a local home parish, and “given the type of population we have, we made the decision not to do reservations.” 

Father Fowlkes and his staff and volunteers are meeting regularly to plan for the best way to accommodate parishioners and visitors, some who might be returning to church for the first time in months. 

“We’re recruiting additional ushers,” to help with the Christmas Masses, he said, and “we’ll be observing all the COVID protocols,” including mask-wearing, providing hand sanitizer, and maintaining social distance, which means 50 percent attendance capacity in both the church and the Fleming Center. 

Father Fowlkes has also met with parish nurses and healthcare workers “to discuss the protocols and make sure we’re doing our best to keep people healthy,” he said. “We’re doing the very best we can to make prudent judgments. At the end of the day that’s all any of us can do.” 

Many parishes in the diocese are adding Masses to spread out expected crowds for Christmas Eve and are working hard to continue to serve the spiritual needs of their parishioners while maintaining safe spaces. 

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and tighter restrictions in place on gatherings in Nashville, people may be uncomfortable attending Mass. 

“It’s worth saying again, the dispensation remains in place from the obligation to attend Mass, which allows people to make an adult and prudent decision based on their own health and comfort level,” said Father John Hammond, Vicar General of the Diocese of Nashville. 

The dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days has been put in place indefinitely by Bishop Spalding.

‘Spiritual Hunger’

Immaculate Conception Parish in Clarksville will offer four Masses on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day, and could add a sixth Mass if needed, said the pastor, Father Jacob Dio, MSFS.

The Christmas Eve Masses will be at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and midnight in English and 8 p.m. in Spanish, and there will be a Mass in English at 10 a.m. on Christmas.

Attendance at Mass will be limited to 250 people because of COVID-19 restrictions, and if more people show up, they will be asked to come to the next Mass, Father Dio said.

Parishioners have already been asking about the Mass schedule for Christmas, Father Dio said, and the parish has been publishing the schedule in the weekly bulletin.

He’s expecting a lot of people to show up for Mass despite the pandemic. Christmas has always been a popular Mass, drawing even people who don’t attend regularly.

The popularity of attending Mass on Christmas “has to do with our custom, our culture,” Father Dio said. “People have the belief it is important to have a blessing on this special day.”

It also is an opportunity for him to invite those who don’t attend Mass regularly to come back.

“I see that there is a kind of spiritual hunger in our community,” Father Dio said. “So it is a beautiful opportunity to make them feel welcome and feel at home.”

“I welcome all of them … and remind them we have Mass every single day,” Father Dio said. “It’s a great opportunity to let them know we are here all the time.”

St. Matthew Church in Franklin will have three Masses on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day, with advance reservations required. As the Tennessee Register goes to press, almost all the spots for the 4 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve had been claimed, with over 200 spots still available for the 6:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Masses. “We have a sign up as we do for every weekend Mass,” said pastor Father Mark Sappenfield. 

“We’re not sure what to expect, but we’re hoping for the best,” he said. St. Matthew is planning to seat overflow crowds in the gym to maintain social distance and watch a livestream of the Mass, he added. 

‘A busy Christmas’

Despite the pandemic, “It’s going to be a busy Christmas” at the Church of the Assumption in the Germantown neighborhood of Nashville, said the pastor, Father Bede Price. 

Assumption is planning a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, as it has done in the past, Father Price said. 

“My first Midnight Mass here we had probably 400 people,” Father Price said. “We’ve had really good response to people looking for a Midnight Mass at midnight” rather than a Mass earlier in the evening on Christmas Eve.

Assumption’s Midnight Mass will be in Latin, as will the 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Masses on Christmas day. The 11 a.m. Mass on Christmas will be in English. They will also have a Vespers service at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Assumption is one of the few parishes in the diocese that has regular Masses in Latin, and they draw people from throughout Middle Tennessee.

The Christmas schedule at Assumption will be complicated by more than just the COVID-19 pandemic. Damage to the church sustained in the tornado that swept through Nashville last March has made it impossible to use the church. The parish has been celebrating Masses in the Buddeke House Chapel across the street from the church and Father Bernard Hall next door since the tornado.

The Christmas Masses will all be celebrated in the Buddeke House Chapel, which can seat 100 to 125 people with the restrictions caused by the pandemic, Father Price said.

“We’re in as tight as we could get” while maintaining social distancing, he said.

“We have to leave it up to people’s judgment” as to whether the Masses will be too crowded for them to feel comfortable, Father Price said. “They have to do what they feel is safe to do.”

As the parish’s only priest and one of the few priests in the diocese celebrates the Mass in Latin, Father Price said, it is difficult for him to add Masses to the schedule to spread out the attendance.

“It’s going to be really hard on the parishes in the diocese,” Father Price said of celebrating the popular Christmas Masses in the middle of a pandemic. “It will be hard everywhere.”

Bishop J. Mark Spalding’s 10 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation will be livestreamed at, and on the Facebook pages of the Diocese of Nashville and the Cathedral. 

Bishop Spalding’s 10 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass from the Cathedral will be rebroadcast:

Christmas Eve at Midnight on WZTV Fox 17 

Christmas Day at 8 a.m. on WZTV Fox 17

Christmas Day at 10 a.m. on WNAB CW58

Christmas Day at 11 a.m. on WUXP MyTV30

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