By Denis Grasska and Aida Bustos
SAN DIEGO — With gratitude and joy, thousands of local Catholics recently returned to Mass and received the Eucharist for the first time in almost three months.
Parishes throughout San Diego County resumed the public celebration of Sunday Mass during the weekend of June 13-14. Fittingly enough, it was the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, a feast day held in honor of the Eucharist. Many parishes were offering weekday Masses as early as June 8.
In the Imperial Valley, the diocese paused plans to reopen public Masses over the June 27-28 weekend. Imperial County is experiencing the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the state. The safety of parishioners and the greater community came first, Bishop Robert W. McElroy said in a statement announcing the pause, adding that Valley parishes would continue to offer livestream Masses.
Though Bishop McElroy has dispensed all Catholics in the Diocese of San Diego for the foreseeable future from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, many have practically leapt at the opportunity to return.
“There was a great deal of excitement in the air when parishioners learned of our re-opening,” said Father Peter Escalante, pastor of Mission San Diego de Alcalá Parish.
For Deacon Charles Navarrete, the re-opening was “a long time coming” and something that clearly meant a lot to the parishioners he encountered at St. Margaret Parish in Oceanside.
“I’ve seen a lot of grateful individuals, mostly in tears to be able to receive Communion again,” he told The Southern Cross before a Sunday morning Mass on June 14.
Though liturgical celebrations have resumed, they are not exactly the same as they were prior to March 16, when all public Masses were suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon re-opening, parishes have implemented a variety of measures intended to promote social distancing and reduce the chance of transmission.
The principal measure is limiting congregants to 25 percent of the capacity of the church, up to a maximum of 100 people. To avoid exceeding capacity, some parishes have been requiring reservations, while others have adopted a “first come, first served” approach. At many churches, every other pew has been cordoned off; at some, colored tape in the pews and aisles shows where parishioners must sit or stand in order to maintain the required six feet of social distancing between themselves and those who are not members of the same household.
Additionally, face masks must be worn by everyone in the church; Communion, only in the form of the consecrated bread and only on the hand, is distributed to the faithful after the final blessing as they depart; and the use of offertory collection baskets has been discontinued, with parishioners now depositing their donations in secure receptacles placed near the exits. Neither congregational singing nor choirs are currently permitted, because COVID-19 particles are believed to travel farther through singing than speaking, and churches are being thoroughly disinfected after each Mass.
Because many of the faithful found it difficult to go to confession with the statewide “stay-at-home” order in place, Bishop McElroy permitted priests to celebrate the “Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution” during the first Masses after the re-opening. In this way, entire congregations were absolved of both venial and mortal sins during the Mass so that they could receive Communion. Mortal sins, though forgiven in this way, must still be mentioned at one’s next confession.
“Welcome home,” Bishop McElroy declared as he opened the first public Mass at The Immaculata Parish, the Saturday vigil on June 13.
The church has a capacity of 900 but only a maximum of 100 may attend a Mass at this time. That number was reached 11 minutes before the start of the 4:30 p.m. Mass. At that point, the ushers closed the front door and directed people to the garden on the east side of the building, where lawn chairs had been set up six feet apart. About 30 people were sent there and were able to listen to the Mass through speakers.
“It’s good to be back again, celebrating the Eucharist in its integrity,” the bishop said at the start of the Mass.
Meanwhile, only 35 faithful can attend Mass at a time at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Barrio Logan. That number was reached about 10 minutes before the start of the June 14 noon Sunday Mass in Spanish, normally one of the busiest of the weekend.
A ministry leader, Raymundo Rivas, checked the temperature of every person who arrived while a fellow volunteer kept count. Ushers closed the door of the parish once the maximum number had been reached minutes before noon.
Félix Ávila had arrived early to secure a spot inside. He said he had been coming to the parish for 30 years, even though he no longer lived in the neighborhood.
“I really missed attending Mass,” he said moments before it started. “I’ve been watching them on the Internet but it’s not the same as being here, in the house of God. You don’t have a chance to have Communion.”
St. Mark Parish reached the maximum allowed of 100 at its 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass in Spanish at its Discovery Street main church in San Marcos. An overflow of 100 faithful were sent to Healy Parish Hall, where they were able to view a livestream of the Mass.
That Mass normally draws from 800 to 1,200, according to Father Bernardo Lara, who celebrated that liturgy on June 14.
At St. Jude Shrine of the West, about 50 people attended the 8 a.m. Mass on Wednesday, June 10, celebrated by Bishop McElroy.
The church had placed yellow tape on top of each pew in English and Spanish that said, “Thank you for maintaining social distance,” and round signs down the middle aisle leading to the altar, six feet apart, showing a pair of bare feet with the message, “Please wait here.”
“It’s good to be with you here,” he told them in Spanish, as the parishioners recited familiar prayers, their voices muffled by their face masks.
The bishop’s sentiments were shared, not only by parishioners in that particular church, but by members of parish communities throughout the diocese who were just as grateful to attend Mass again.
“It means so much to me to be back,” Lucia Hutchings said on the steps of St. Didacus Church in Normal Heights after attending a morning Mass June 12. “It’s just like a breath of fresh air.”
“I never realized how much I missed it until I couldn’t go anymore,” she said.
But that deprivation only served to deepen her love for the Mass, which she had already considered an essential part of her life. She said it was with a sense of “euphoria” that she began attending Mass again.
When Rosemary Sporleder, a member of Our Lady of Grace Parish in El Cajon, participated in her first parish Mass since the re-opening, she felt that both she and her fellow parishioners were more attentive to the liturgy.
“It seemed like I could pray every word of the Mass better than I ever had before,” she said.
At Blessed Sacrament Parish, Sharon Albers said the pastoral council and several parish committees had been hard at work for several weeks in anticipation of the parish’s first Masses.
She said witnessing the re-opening of the parish was “like watching something take life again.”
With the new safety measures in place, she said, “It’s the same, but it’s different.” The masks, social distancing and other changes are “a small price to pay for being able to gather,” she said.
Paul Miller, a longtime parishioner of Our Lady of Grace Parish in El Cajon, said the suspension of Masses had left “a void” in his life and filled him with “a longing.”
“Going to Mass online is definitely not like coming to church,” he said.
But, at the same time, one of the reasons that he loves coming to Mass is the sense of family that he finds there. On June 12, he noted that there was “a different vibe” at Mass because of “this distancing thing we have now.” He lamented that he had seen but obviously had been unable to hug a close friend at church that morning, and the safety measures also make it impossible to “turn around, and smile at someone, and wish them a good day.”
“Maybe it’s the ‘new normal,’ but I’m hoping it’s not,” said Miller, who is among those longing for the day when COVID-19 prevention measures can be lifted.
Pastors, too, have been grateful for the opportunity to preside over celebrations with their parishioners again.
“It just gets tired saying Mass in front of a camera,” said Msgr. Dennis Mikulanis, pastor of San Rafael Parish in Rancho Bernardo, reflecting on months of filming online Masses with a small number of liturgical ministers. It was “wonderful” to have an in-person congregation once more.
“Being a pastor and having no parishioners around was a real sad experience for me,” echoed Msgr. Mark Campbell, pastor of Our Mother of Confidence Parish in University City, who describes himself as “a people person” and says that the physical presence of parishioners “enhances” his efforts to celebrate a reverent liturgy.
Father Escalante said his primary goal has been reassuring parishioners that the parish is “taking every precaution to make our worship space as safe as possible.”
Still, not all practicing Catholics have returned to Mass yet. Some, including elderly parishioners, parents with young children, and those with underlying health conditions, are exercising caution and wariness.
“Those who came to Mass were very upbeat, cooperative and appreciative,” Father Escalante said.
At the same time, he noted, “There were a number of people who indicated that they would wait awhile before they returned. Some indicated that they would attend a weekday Mass to avoid crowds and contact. Many requested that we continue to televise our Sunday Mass, which we will, so they are able to continue watching from home.”
Msgr. Campbell would like to see the numbers of returning parishioners continue to rise.
“My hope is that they will not hesitate to come back to church in greater numbers and gradually get over the fear,” he said.
“If we follow the guidelines that we’re following strictly,” he added, “there should be no problem at all.”