How parishes expect to manage Christmas Masses


Easter of 2020 was like no other in living memory. Churches across the nation, and across the world, were practically empty as the great throngs of people that typically crowd places of worship on that holiest day of the year were forced to stay at home. Most viewed Mass online, participating as best they could from a distance.

In recent weeks, governors across the country have reinstituted restrictions on the size of gatherings, in many cases specifically limiting church attendance. As we approach Christmas, what will this mean for Catholics in the United States? What will Christmas in parishes look like?

Another question lingers on the mind of pastors and parish councils: finances. Many are already experiencing financial hardship due to smaller collections, the result of lower Mass attendance due to lockdowns and restrictions. Christmas and Easter typically see the largest collections of the year, since Mass attendance is at its highest, including many people who only attend Mass on those major holidays.

Alongside the financial considerations, the most important concern is the faithful not having access to the sacraments. So what are parishes planning to do to accommodate the increased demand for Mass this Christmas?

Changing restrictions changing weather

At St. Apollinaris Church in Napa, California, Father Fergal McGuinness was not surprised by the state’s new lockdowns and restrictions. “We had seen the way the numbers were going,” he said, explaining that they had anticipated new restrictions. The number of people allowed by the state for Mass attendance has changed many times over the course of the pandemic, so the parish staff is accustomed to improvising and changing plans to accommodate new circumstances.

Because they were expecting restrictions, it is almost a relief to have them laid out now, he said. “In some ways, knowing how things will look for the foreseeable future actually helps us,” Father McGuiness said. “We are able to sit down and plan what Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas are going to look like.”

While the parish was able to hold Mass outdoors during the summer months, they are having to make some adjustments to that plan in light of the new restrictions and changing weather, such as installing a PA system and car covers in the parking lot.

Due to the fact that Mass will be held outside, Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California, has given parishes permission to hold their Christmas Eve Masses as early as 2:00 p.m.

“We are taking advantage of that permission here so that we can do two Christmas Eve Masses, and not have to do them in the dark,” said Father McGuinness. The parish will not have the traditional Midnight Mass this year. Christmas morning will see the regular Mass schedule, although it will be outside.

The state of California’s guidance does not allow congregational singing, which is a particular challenge at Christmas. “We don’t know yet how we are going to navigate that when it comes to Christmas, because obviously Christmas carols are such a big part of Christmas,” Father McGuinness said.

Since the pandemic began and Masses were cancelled for much of the spring, the parish has seen a significant increase in online giving. This has not completely made up for the in-person donations, so Father McGuinness will be encouraging people to continue to donate, whether online or in person. The budget for the current fiscal year, beginning July 1, was adjusted by the parish due to the pandemic, and they have strictly cut expenses wherever possible, including reduced hours for personnel, reduced rectory expenses, etc.

“It is obviously a concern,” Father McGuinness said. But the parishioners have been very generous, which gives him hope.

Feeling optimistic

The Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, Kentucky, is designed to raise the eyes and attention of the congregant to heaven. These days, there are far fewer people seeing it in person and availing themselves of its beauty. Just like at other churches in dioceses across the country and around the world, Christmas 2020 will look much different than it ever has before.

As in the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz in the Archdiocese of Louisville has given permission for parishes to begin their Christmas Eve Masses as early as 2:00 p.m. Father Martin Linebach is rector of the cathedral and vicar general for the archdiocese.

“We are asking cathedral parishioners via electronic communication to indicate which Mass they plan to attend so we can manage the number attending each Christmas Mass to ensure we follow the protocols — number allowed at each Mass, masks, social distancing and sanitizing hands as well as sanitizing the Cathedral-church,” Father Linebach said.

Father Linebach is optimistic about what the coming months hold. “Given that all the archdiocesan parishes including the cathedral are being extremely careful to keep the faithful safe at Mass under the direction of Archbishop Kurtz, I do not feel anxious that we will close down again,” he said.

‘We will find ways to remain open’

Father Brian Lager, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hays, Kansas, has been a priest for eight years and has never seen a challenge to parish life quite like the restrictions resulting from COVID-19 — but he sees reason to hope. “This is a new challenge that I think our parishioners have met with incredible grace,” he said.

Public Masses were suspended beginning March 17, but in Kansas they were able to return to Mass on May 5, with certain restrictions. Attendance has been at about 75% of what it was before Masses were suspended. To be able to comply with social distancing guidelines but still make the Mass available to as many people as possible, the parish has added a Mass on Sunday.

For St. Joseph, the answer is twofold — increased space and increased opportunity. The parish has two worship sites; in a typical year, there would be one Christmas at the smaller church, and four at the larger. This year there will be six, all held at the larger church.

“The bishop has given us the freedom to work in our communities as we need to do so,” Father Lager said. “The restrictions have been up to each pastor, according to the local health officials.” The hope is that, while observing social distancing, they will be able to accommodate 150 people at each Mass.

“I believe that people that want to go to Mass will go, and those that have become comfortable at home will stay at home,” he said.

At St. Joseph’s, as in so many other places, collections have decreased — in this case, about 20% since the beginning of the fiscal year. But Father Lager is holding out hope that they will rebound soon.

Father Lager is confident that the parish will be able to find ways to keep from closing their doors. “I don’t think we will close down again,” he said. “We will find ways to remain open.”

“Mass is as essential as going to the doctor,” Father Lager said. “We need a doctor for our body, and a doctor for our soul. We can take care of the body all we want but if we don’t care for our soul we will lose eternity.”

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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