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In or out? Many parishes voluntarily sticking with outdoor Masses

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SAN DIEGO — All San Diego County parishes can celebrate Mass indoors once again, but many have chosen to remain outside anyway.

It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that began with the suspension of all public Masses on March 16, as part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. San Diego County Masses resumed on June 8 and continued to be celebrated indoors through July 14, after which new state restrictions required parishes to shift to outdoor liturgies.

In a Sept. 1 letter to priests, Bishop Robert W. McElroy informed pastors that Masses at San Diego County parishes could return indoors as early as the next day, but he also gave them wide latitude to determine what was in their parish’s best interests.

“You should make the choice that best fits your physical situation and community desires,” the bishop wrote.

At Catholic parishes countywide, pastors have taken that recommendation to heart. (In Imperial County, public Masses resumed during the Sept. 19-20 weekend, after a nearly three-month suspension, only outdoors.)

Some parishes opted to discontinue outdoor Masses entirely and celebrate their liturgies exclusively indoors. Others have stuck with outdoor Masses, while still others are offering both.

Additionally, with Bishop McElroy’s dispensation from Sunday Mass attendance still in effect, parishes are continuing to livestream Masses for those not yet comfortable with attending Mass in person, even with safety protocols in place.

The situation remains fluid. On Sept. 22, San Diego County narrowly avoided being placed into the most restrictive tier in the state’s re-opening process, which would have meant another suspension of indoor Masses along with other restrictions. As of press time, it seemed likely that the county’s luck might soon run out. Local Catholics are encouraged to check with their parishes for the most up-to-date information about Mass times and locations.

For Father Peter Navarra, pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral, it was “a moment of joy” when he received permission to begin celebrating Mass inside once again.

He had been offering outdoor Masses in the courtyard adjacent to the church by necessity, but he said the arrangement was “a little troublesome and a little annoying” because of the parish’s location. The liturgy had to contend with “all the sounds and noises” of downtown San Diego.

Conceding that outdoor Masses can be quite nice at suburban parishes where quiet moments are filled with birdsong, Father Navarra said, “We have a siren here every half-hour at least.”

At those parishes that will not be resuming indoor Masses in the near future, high attendance numbers were a major reason for that decision.

Father Efrain Bautista, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Bonita, said his Sunday Masses have been attracting between 200 and 300 people. While outdoor gatherings can be as large as space permits with proper social distancing in effect, going back inside would mean restricting each Mass to only 100 people.

Father Peter McGuine, pastor of Our Lady of Grace in El Cajon, said that his parish will also be staying outside except when extreme heat or other environmental factors necessitate moving indoors.

At Our Lady of Grace, he said, even weekday Mass attendance frequently exceeds 100 people.

Another reason cited for remaining outdoors is that many parishioners feel safer in the open air during this period of pandemic.

“I think most people are quite happy to be outside,” said Father Edmundo Zarate-Suarez, who counts himself and his associate pastors in that category.

Father Zarate-Suarez, pastor of both St. Jude Shrine of the West Parish in Southcrest and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in National City, said there was overwhelming support at his parishes for the idea of staying outside. He noted that his parishes had been seeing higher Mass attendance for outdoor liturgies than they had between June 8 and July 14, when Masses previously had been permitted indoors.

Father Cávana Wallace, pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Oceanside, is content with the current arrangement of celebrating Mass outside in the church piazza, which he likened to “a mini St. Peter’s Square surrounded by gardens and natural landscape.”

While conceding that many miss the “smells and bells” of liturgy inside the church, he said, “Offering a simple Mass in the piazza has allowed us to appreciate, not only the essentials of worship but also a much needed refreshing environment to still the mind and soul in the midst of so much anxiety around us.”

Some parishes are offering a combination of indoor and outdoor Masses.

At St. Gregory the Great Parish in Scripps Ranch, all Masses are back inside the church, but parishioners are also invited to sit outside if they wish. They are able to hear the Mass through the exterior speakers, and Eucharistic ministers also come out to distribute Communion to them.

Meanwhile, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Mission Hills and Mary Star of the Sea Parish in La Jolla are among the parishes that are offering both indoor and outdoor liturgies.

At St. Vincent’s, weekday Masses have relocated inside, while weekend Masses will continue to be celebrated outside. At Mary Star of the Sea, daily Masses Monday through Friday are celebrated inside, while the Saturday morning Mass, Saturday vigil Masses in English and Spanish, and all Sunday Masses are held outside on the campus of Stella Maris Academy.

“It was actually something we were hoping for,” Father Pat Mulcahy, pastor of Mary Star of the Sea Parish, said of the announcement that indoor Masses were once again permitted.

He said parishioners have “a longing” to be inside their parish church, which he described as being “like an extension of their own home,” a place where they feel comfortable and aware of God’s presence.

“The people have been very happy being back inside the church during the weekdays,” said Father Mulcahy, who described his parish’s dual options of both indoor and outdoor liturgies as a case of “trying to meet the needs of all of our parishioners.”

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