Parishes prepare to welcome the faithful back to Mass

Mike Decker uses an electric sprayer to apply an electrostatic disinfectant as part of the efforts of the parish to minimize the chance of spreading viruses at Christ the King Church on Friday, May 15. Bishop J. Mark Spalding has reinstated the public celebration of Mass in the diocese at the discretion of pastors effective May 18.
Photo by Rick Musacchio

Resuming Public Masses from Diocese of Nashville on Vimeo.

Pastors of the Diocese of Nashville’s 58 churches and their staffs have have been busy planning to resume the public celebration of Masses. But that start could come on different days and in different ways, depending on the parish.

Bishop J. Mark Spalding announced on May 7 that the public celebration of Masses could resume on Monday, May 18. At the same time, he said, “Some pastors may prudently decide to wait a few more weeks. … We especially do not want to put anyone at undue risk from a hasty or ill-prepared reopening.”

The bishop’s dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days will remain in effect through June 30, and he encouraged people who are not feeling well, are in vulnerable groups, or are concerned about joining public gatherings to stay home. Parishes also will continue to livestream their Masses for people to watch at home. 

At Christ the King Church in Nashville, pastor Father Dexter Brewer said he is a bit worried about moving too fast to bring people together and the potential of putting their health at risk.

“As the doctors say, first do no harm,” he said.

“I’ve been thinking about our space at Christ the King and how can we best keep people safe when we return,” said Father Brewer, a Vicar General of the diocese. 

Although the diocese has issued guidelines that churches should follow regarding social distancing and limiting attendance to 50 percent of capacity, Father Brewer said, Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s recommendation that gatherings should be limited to 200 square feet per person “are probably the best.”

“That gives us about 100 people in the church,” Father Brewer said. Even with that limited attendance, he still is uncomfortable gathering people in that space, he said. 

“My idea is to have Mass outdoors,” Father Brewer said. “That makes me feel better.

The Christ the King Parish Council discussed the parish’s plans for moving forward, and “everyone seemed to agree that beginning outdoors makes sense,” Father Brewer said. 

The parish has two places it could hold Masses outside: a cloister area between the church and the parish school, and the field beside the school that is used for a playground.

At this time, “putting out a general invitation to the parish doesn’t seem like something I can do,” Father Brewer said. “I have to keep them safe.”

Instead, the parish will ease into resuming public Masses as the parish staff works out the details, Father Brewer said. He plans to start by inviting different groups from the parish, beginning with the parish council early next week, to an outdoor Mass, “to make certain that we won’t be overwhelmed.”

“Maybe once the parish council gets together for Mass early next week and a few other groups gather we’ll find there’s no issue at all,” he said, and the parish will be able to invite everyone to gather for Mass.

Limits on attendance

Although attendance is to be limited to no more than 50 percent of a church’s capacity, as a practical matter, attendance will be more limited than that, said Father Bala Showraiah, OFM, the pastor of St. Philip Church in Franklin, one of the largest in the diocese.

Blocking every other pew reduces the capacity to 50 percent, but maintaining proper social distancing means fewer people will be in each pew, he explained. “It works out to 25 to 30 percent.”

St. Philip will move any overflow to its community center, Father Showraiah said.

At Holy Name Church in East Nashville a Communion Service will be held on May 18 and public Masses will begin on May 19.

“If we have more than 50 percent of the capacity of the church, we’ll take them to the auditorium,” where speakers will be set up so people can listen to the Mass, said Holy Name pastor Father Theo Ebulueme. 

St. Ignatius of Antioch Church will start celebrating public Masses on May 18.

“We decided if we have big crowds we’ll make changes to the schedule and have one more Mass,” St. Ignatius pastor Father Titus Augustine, CMI, said. “We’ll see how it goes for two weeks before making any changes.”

Holy Family Church in Brentwood plans to resume daily Mass on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25, and on the weekend of May 30-31 will resume the first public Sunday Masses. 

“We are still encouraging those with health issues to be cautious, and attend daily Mass instead of Sunday,” said Betty Lou Burnett, director of pastoral care at Holy Family and a member of the working group of clergy and lay people assisting Bishop Spalding as the diocese plans for the return of public Masses.

Many parishes will be following Bishop Spalding’s suggestion to add Masses during the week for people 65 and older and those uncomfortable attending the more crowded Sunday Masses. Holy Family will also add Masses to its weekend schedule.

For those with at-risk health conditions, Holy Family will have a Saturday evening vigil “drive-in” Mass, where cars can pull in the parking lot and watch a livestream of the Mass as it’s celebrated inside the church, and Eucharistic ministers will bring Communion out to them. 

“We’re fortunate that we do have a lot of space,” where people can spread out and attend Mass in different spaces of the church, Burnett said. 

Logistics are a challenge

At St. Patrick Church in McEwen, “Our target is Pentecost Sunday,” for resuming public Masses, said pastor, Father Zachaeus Kirangu. “We are holding off because one we want to make sure we have the supplies.”

The delay will also allow time to prepare the parishioners for the return of public Masses, he said. 

“For us it begins with instruction of how we’re going to go forward,” Father Kirangu said. “We want to make sure everybody is on board.”

He will be meeting in the coming days with various committees and groups in the parish to prepare.

“Our congregation is almost 75 percent elderly,” Father Kirangu said. “How are we going to make it more comfortable for the elderly to come to Mass, because that’s our congregation.

“So, we want to make sure we are ready for them,” he said.

“The logistics have really been mind-boggling,” said Claire Hale, director of administration at St. Henry Church in Nashville, one of the largest in the diocese. From extra cleaning, to recruiting extra ushers and Eucharistic ministers, to physically rehearsing Mass and thinking through all the touch points during the liturgy, St. Henry parish staff members have been busy preparing to welcome parishioners back on Monday, May 18.

Hale is working to recruit additional volunteers under age 60 to serve as ushers, who will have “one of the tougher jobs,” checking that people are wearing masks and complying with social distancing guidelines. 

St. Henry has not set a firm date for resuming Sunday Masses, because “we want to make sure everything is in place,” Hale said, but they hope to by May 24. 

Protections during Communion

Protecting everyone from the spread of the COVID-19 virus will require several changes in the way the Eucharist is distributed.

The diocese’s recommended precautions in distributing Communion include: 

• Distribution of the Precious Blood has been suspended.

• Clergy and laypeople who distribute Holy Communion should wash and purify their hands thoroughly before and after distributing Holy Communion, and wear a face mask during the Rite of Communion.

“We’ll be strongly encouraging them to receive Communion only in the hand,” Father Showraiah said of his parishioners. 

But for those at St. Philip who wish to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, one of the priests will be designated for that purpose, he added.

While the congregation will be wearing face coverings and masks, the priests and eucharistic ministers at St. Philip will be wearing plastic face shields, Father Showraiah said. “We want to protect them.”

At Christ the King, all those who serve at Masses, including priests, deacons, lectors and eucharistic ministers, will be tested for the COVID-19 virus, Father Brewer said. 

Everyone will wear masks, he added. The message he wants to communicate to his parishioners, Father Brewer said, “is we’re doing everything we can to be safe.”

Other parishes are taking similar precautions.

At Holy Name Church in East Nashville, everyone will be wearing a mask and the parish will provide hand sanitizer, Father Ebulueme said. The parish also will be checking people’s temperatures to see if they have a fever before they enter the church.

“Normally we don’t have greeters, but we may need greeters to help people” find seats that maintain the proper social distancing, Father Kirangu said.

And the congregation will be wearing masks.

“It’s very communal. It’s very family,” Father Kirangu said of his parish, one of the oldest in the diocese. “Wearing a mask is kind of foreign. It’s not family.”

“That will be challenging,” he said. “We need to be sensitizing people about wearing masks. It’s not about yourself, it’s about the people around you.”

‘They want to be safe’

Father Brewer said it is difficult to predict how many people will show up once public celebrations of Mass resume. 

“We’ll continue to make it known that those who are any way compromised should stay at home, or those living with anyone compromised,” Father Brewer said. “That will keep the numbers down.”

“I know a lot of people want to come back, but they want to be safe,” he added. “I think it will regulate itself.”

Father Augustine thinks many of his parishioners will continue to watch the livestreamed Masses rather than attend the public celebrations. “I think the people are too scared to come out,” he said. “We’ll just see.”

Theresa Laurence contributed to this report.