SAN DIEGO — The future looked bleak on July 13, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the entire state would return to “a ‘modification mode’ of our original stay-at-home order” in response to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases.
Thirty counties on the statewide monitoring list, including San Diego and Imperial counties, were hit with additional restrictions, including the suspension of all indoor operations at places of worship.
At first glance, it appeared that the return of public Masses in the Diocese of San Diego, which had resumed only a month earlier after a three-month suspension, would prove to be short-lived.
Though Bishop Robert W. McElroy has dispensed local Catholics from their Sunday obligation to attend Mass for the time being, many had enthusiastically returned to their parishes as early as June 8, when the first public Masses since the lockdown were celebrated.
“My initial reaction was a mix of emotions. I honestly felt very angry, which led me to feel very anxious,” Crystal Carr, a member of Our Lady of Grace Parish in El Cajon, said about the governor’s announcement.
But that changed quickly.
Within about three hours, she received an email from her parish explaining that Mass would not be canceled but simply celebrated outside for the foreseeable future.
“I felt such a huge sense of instant relief and gratitude,” Carr told The Southern Cross after an outdoor Mass July 16.
The governor’s restrictions went into effect after midnight on July 15. Eight hours later, the 8 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Grace proceeded as scheduled. The only difference was that instead of gathering inside a church with pews marked for social distancing, parishioners brought their own lawn chairs and placed them in a grassy area in the parish parking lot under the cover of trees. An altar and lectern were set up just outside the church’s front doors.
The situation at Our Lady of Grace is not unique. Parishes throughout the diocese have made similar arrangements with the encouragement of Bishop McElroy.
In a July 14 letter to priests about the governor’s new restrictions, the bishop said that outdoor Masses represented “a realistic alternative” at most parishes and, if not at their own parish, most Catholics in the diocese should be able to locate an outdoor Mass within a short driving distance.
“I am so grateful to be able to receive the Eucharist. I don’t take one second for granted,” said Linda Jolliff, who has been a member of Our Lady of Grace Parish for 54 years. “So, we are grateful that they made these accommodations.”
“It’s such a gift. That’s all I can say,” said Susan Redlinger, another Our Lady of Grace parishioner.
When public Masses resumed in June, parishes adopted strict safety protocols that included mandated face masks, social distancing and the sanitizing of churches after each Mass.
But the bishop acknowledged in his letter that 75 percent of regular Mass-goers have yet to return, presumably because they still perceive it to be dangerous.
The bishop wrote that celebrating Mass outdoors will provide “a healthier setting for Mass in a time of rising pandemic” and can “legitimately lessen people’s fears.”
“I feel very safe here,” Carr shared after the outdoor Mass she attended. “I feel safer here than going to the grocery store.”
Father Peter McGuine, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, had played a central role in the diocese’s preparations to resume public Masses in early June. With a small team, he developed a template for parish re-openings, reviewed the individualized plans submitted by each pastor and provided feedback.
For his work on that project, he said, Bishop McElroy jokingly dubbed him the diocese’s “re-opening czar.”
“I thought it had been going very well,” Father McGuine said of the resumption of Masses, noting that local parishes had taken seriously their responsibility to keep parishioners safe.
After all of that, Gov. Newsom’s announcement that indoor Masses were to be suspended again was “understandable but disappointing,” he said.
However, there was a silver lining. Father McGuine noted that, when public Masses were suspended between mid-March and early June, there was no option to move them outdoors. Even outdoor gatherings had been prohibited.
Since the resumption of public Masses on June 8, attendance indoors had been limited to 25 percent of building capacity, not to exceed 100 people; some parishes, like Our Lady of Grace, had required Mass-goers to register in advance to prevent overcrowding.
But the 100-person limit is not required outside.
“We can have as many as wish to be there, as long as social distancing is maintained,” Father McGuine said.
Baptisms, first Communions, confirmations and even a funeral have taken place outside since the governor’s order, said Father McGuine.
Msgr. Dennis Mikulanis, pastor of San Rafael Parish in Rancho Bernardo, also transitioned to outdoor Masses on the day the governor’s restrictions took effect. There were almost 100 people in attendance.
Undaunted by the recent changes, he noted, “The Mass can be said anywhere, and anywhere can become a cathedral — and it all began in a stable.”
San Rafael Parish has transformed its pastoral center’s parking garage into its temporary worship space. It is a covered area, open at both ends, and has a constant breeze. Some 99 people can be seated with the required spacing, and there is room for others to stand around the perimeter.
Msgr. Mikulanis said he learned a motto from U.S. Marines at his parish: “Improvise, adapt, overcome.”
“That’s what we’re doing and we’re doing it well,” he said. “Actually, it’s all kind of fun to try and stay one step ahead of the game and show Satan it can’t keep us down.”