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Local parishes begin hosting small groups for public Masses

 052820gradual return Mass Holy Angels

Bishop Robert J. McClory (right) places a host in the hands of Martin Brown II, 17, during Mass on May 17 at Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary. Bishop McClory welcomed a limited number of worshippers to the cathedral for the first Mass with a congregation in two months since the diocese suspended public liturgies, paralleling government guidelines for coronavirus protection and a gradual re-opening. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

 

BY ERIN CISZCZON

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      Scheduling professional cleaning services, adding sanitizer stations and marking church pews to promote social distancing, are just some of the tasks that kept parish staffers within the Diocese of Gary busy as they began to anticipate the moment when they could reopen Masses to the public. In recent weeks, following Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Back on Track plan for loosening COVID-19 restrictions, some parishes have slowly begun to welcome small groups back to share in the Eucharist.

      On Sunday, May 17, Bishop Robert J. McClory celebrated Mass with 35 people at Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary. Those in attendance were asked to wear masks and maintain a distance of six feet apart from one another. Hand sanitizer was visibly present in the church. With those safety precautions in place, Bishop McClory shared his joy to be with those present.

      “We are all learning our way through this, but what a joy it is to be here together, to offer you the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament,” he said. “The Lord wants to nourish us and to feed us, so to those present it’s a joy to have you here and to those viewing remotely, continue to stay safe. Again, in the Diocese of Gary we are gradually continuing to reopen our Masses, so if you are well enough, contact your parish to see how they are arranging that to make sure as these days unfold you’ll be able to participate as well.”

      Parishioner Emily Glass, whose two sons assist as altar servers at Holy Angels, was in attendance at the Mass. She said it felt good to be back in the cathedral after not being able to be there for several months. What she missed most during that time, she said, was being able to see other worshippers.

      “We are a tight-knit parish,” Glass said. “It was nice to be back and see a handful of others at least.”

      Bishop McClory had announced the guidelines for reopening parish Masses in a letter to the faithful on May 8. In that document he stressed, “We need to get this right, not rushed.”

      He stated that each parish is unique and, therefore, would not necessarily be on the same timetable for reopening. Regardless of when a parish felt comfortable enough to reopen, Bishop McClory made it clear they would only be offering limited seating due to social distancing measurements.

      He also offered guidance as to who might be selected to attend the first Masses since concerns over the coronavirus temporarily suspended the celebration of public Mass: adults who were to be baptized or received into the church at the Easter Vigil, first communicants and their families, and those families awaiting Memorial Masses because they could not schedule funeral Masses when their loved ones died earlier this year.

      Selecting parishioners to attend these first public Masses has been a challenge, but the suggestions provided by the diocese have been helpful, said Father Ian Williams, pastor of St. Joseph, St. Peter and Sacred Heart, all in LaPorte. He said it has been a very difficult area for him and for those who are not yet able to attend. He admitted he never imagined in his life as a priest that he would be having to tell some people that they could not attend Mass.

      “On the first Sunday without public Masses, it broke my heart to stand at the church door and turn away the handful of people who showed up for Mass,” he said. “It is difficult for our over-65 parishioners to be excluded from attending Mass. They have been the backbone of the parishes for decades and are beautifully devoted and dedicated to our Lord.”

      Father Williams said he tries to express to seniors that the action is being done out of love for them and concern for their health and well-being. He also makes sure to express the hope that they will soon be able to attend and encourages them to take advantage, as many have, of the social media opportunities to participate in Mass. 

      On the weekend of May 16-17, the LaPorte churches’ liturgical ministers under the age of 65 were invited to attend Mass. They formed a core group of people in the parish who participated in Mass with social distancing guidelines. Following Mass, they received instructions on how to perform their ministry (such as usher/greeter) as Masses are slowly opened up to the public.

      Over the following three weekends, youth scheduled to receive First Holy Comm along with a limited number of family/guests attended Mass. The parish’s Religious Education Department contacted the families and scheduled them for a Mass date and time. The young people were then able to make their First Comm.

      “The experience we are gaining with these Masses will help us to refine our social distancing measures for the next step,” Father Wiliams said. 

      “One of the toughest challenges has been getting the news out to everybody and asking them to comply,” according to Father Michael Yadron, pastor of St. Thomas More in Munster. 

      “There have been individuals, for example, who say that they know that they are not supposed to attend Mass because of being compromised by age or health condition, but intend to do so anyway,” he said. “It is hard to get some people to believe that the threat to one's health is very real.”

      Father Yadron pointed out that the priests and other religious leaders in the diocese do not have all the answers. “We have never been in a position like this, at least in our lifetimes,” he said.

      Father Yadron said as the virus changes, protocols may have to change as well. 

      “We need to be understanding and be flexible in order to accommodate the requirements,” he said. “I would ask those who yearn to return to Mass (in person) to be patient and to know that we are aware of their desire and that we are doing everything in our power to get things prepared so that they can worship safely.”

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