“Parishes are getting used to the liturgical adaptations and have found ways to ensure the celebration of Holy Mass in a safe, dignified, and reverent manner. The sanitizing of our worship sites is becoming a routine practice. So now it is time for us to return home. We have been away for too long!” Bishop Douglas J. Lucia wrote in a July 1 letter to the faithful. Above, Bishop Lucia distributes Communion during the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral June 24. (Sun photo | Chuck Wainwright)
By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer
When St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Chadwicks celebrated its last public Mass March 15 then closed the church building in response to the pandemic stay-at-home orders, even the parish property looked sad.
“We’re on Oneida Street going south to Route 20, the main thoroughfare,” said Kathy Poupart, parish life director. “To have this beautiful Catholic Church in the center of Chadwicks closed was terrible. There was no life going on there, no doors open.”
She asked Brenda Fancett, pastoral care minister, to add a wreath or decoration to the church’s four wooden doors. Fancett added large wooden letters, spelling HOPE across the doors.
“We’re using the exterior of the church to indicate that we’re very much alive, to serve as a beacon for people going up and down Oneida Street,” Poupart said. “We may be closed, but we’re not stopped.”
The parish’s literal message of hope reflects creativity and commitment as the diocese adapts to the global health crisis that has upended daily life. Pastors acknowledge the pain and challenges of maintaining community without in-person services. But they also point to moments of grace and joy.
“The most difficult part of this experience has been the loss of the unique communities of each of our Masses,” said Msgr. Neal Quartier, rector of Syracuse’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. “I pretty much know who came to each Mass and even where they sat and how they congregated together after Mass. We have four different communities here that truly support one another.”
While people appreciate the livestreamed Masses and efforts to stay in touch through the web or by phone calls, “I hear how much they miss being part of the Eucharistic celebration and how they appreciate it more and more since they were deprived of it,” he said.
Return home to Mass
In a July 1 letter, Bishop Douglas J. Lucia encouraged people to resume attending Sunday Mass. “Parishes are getting used to the liturgical adaptations and have found ways to ensure the celebration of Holy Mass in a safe, dignified, and reverent manner,” he wrote. “The sanitizing of our worship sites is becoming a routine practice. So now it is time for us to return home.”
Understanding older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, Bishop Lucia continues to dispense the faithful from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Syracuse Catholic Television continues to provide weekly televised Masses and many parishes continue to provide livestreamed liturgies. But he urged healthy parishioners to return to the table of the Lord.
“More than ever, in this time and place, our life in God must be sustained and Gospel witness is needed in the public square,” he wrote. “Such authentic living is nurtured and fed by our breaking open of God’s Word and our sharing in the Eucharist where we encounter the Real Presence of the Risen Christ.”
Historic Old St. John’s in Utica resumed public Mass June 13. “It was good to see people again,” pastor Father Tom Servatius said. “It was really moving to be able to say ‘the Lord be with you’ and get a resounding, ‘And with your Spirit’ in response.”
The parish has drawn a 25% capacity crowd since then.
“The parish rallied to make reopening happen,” he said. “They don’t all agree with everything that needs to be done. But they’re being team players about it, with their sights on a common purpose, and are doing an awesome job to keep our liturgies safe and prayerful.”
For Father John P. Donovan, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Vestal, celebrating Holy Week and the Easter season digitally was especially difficult. “The richness of the seasons are the symbols and those epiphany moments that people experience as they engage in the rites,” he said.
Parishioners have adjusted to “the numerous ways we used the internet,” but they’re grieving, tired, and overwhelmed.
Believers can find solace in their relationship with God, Father Donovan said. “Our role is to be an example of how we see in each person the image of God, as we were created. We also need to recognize how we have failed to do that by assuming that life is an even playing field,” he said.
“Numerous people in our communities are unnoticed or we distance ourselves from, be it due to mental health, addiction, poverty, race, language or nationality. Justice is for all, and as St. Paul VI said, there is no peace without justice. Even the reorganization of the Diocese is about acknowledging the pain and suffering of all the victims, not simply the one who makes it to court first, responding justly.”
St. Patrick-St. Anthony has celebrated Sunday Mass in its parking lot since Pentecost. Parishioners built a mobile sanctuary where Father Arthur Krawczenko says Mass.
The outdoor Masses draw more than 100 people. When a thunderstorm forced Mass inside, fewer attended. “Many people have said they will not come into the church because they are afraid,” Poupart said.
That caution is widespread. Only 36% of Americans say they would feel comfortable attending an in-person worship service, according to a national survey by the American Enterprise Institute. By comparison, 37% said they would feel comfortable dining out at a restaurant, 24% report feeling comfortable going to a movie theater, and 22% percent would feel comfortable attending a sporting event.
Some people “are really frustrated with what we have to go through for Mass attendance right now, but compared to what others have gone through, and compared to what others are going through right now, I think we need to maintain a sense of perspective,” Father Servatius said. “Yes, there are difficulties. But some of the challenges are simply inconveniences. And we need to become a bit more patient with inconveniences.”
Although it’s unclear when all diocesan events will be at full capacity, businesses and services are resuming across New York state. Central New York and the Southern Tier moved to Phase 4 of New York’s four-phase reopening on June 26. State and diocesan guidelines increased church capacity from 25% to 33% and social gatherings from 25 to 50 people.
More than 80 of 114 parishes in the diocese have begun celebrating in-person Masses, either in parking lots or in churches, since Pentecost, according to diocesan data. Daily public 12 p.m. Mass has resumed at the Cathedral and Bishop Lucia also reinstituted a daily 7 a.m. Mass July 6.
Bishop Lucia will confer the Sacrament of Confirmation at Divine Mercy Parish in Central Square July 29. He and retired Bishop Robert J. Cunningham will visit parishes throughout the summer to celebrate Confirmations postponed amid the pandemic.
Parishes and schools have modified events to meet state and diocesan guidelines restricting gatherings to limit spreading the coronavirus. Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School’s graduation, for example, took place in the school parking lot; Bishop Ludden’s was held on the school’s football field. At St. Rose of Lima in North Syracuse, kindergarten graduation was celebrated in the parking lot; young parishioners also celebrated First Communion and First Reconciliation with pastor Father Chris Celentano outdoors on parish grounds.
Trust in God
Father Servatius noted that parishioners continue to experience the grief, fear, and isolation of COVID-19 even as other events create uncertainty: the racial reckoning resulting from the May 25 police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement; new lawsuits alleging clergy sex abuse and the diocese filing for Chapter 11 reorganization; and angry, polarized public discourse.
“The ground has been steadily shifting under our feet for quite some time,” he said. “Three months ago, the ground shifted into overdrive, and there are no signs of it slowing down anytime soon.”
He urges patience and trust in God. “We are called to be a people of deeper faith,” he said. “Each one of these challenges [is] inviting us to do just that: Grow in our faith. It is difficult, uncomfortable, even painful. But we (all of us) will be a better people for it.”
People — and their faith — grow through challenge, Msgr. Quartier said. “One must make the choice to go deeper into a relationship with the Lord and understand how human the Church is and also understand the human condition and all its foibles,” he said. “We are living in epoch[al] times when everything is turned upside down and we either meet this challenge or we stagnate.”
Uncertainty offers the opportunity to accept life as it is, said Msgr. Quartier, a psychotherapist. “We don’t have to have it all together,” he said. “We have to accept the insecurities of life with all of its inconsistencies and not expect it is going to happen the way we want it to happen. When we do this, we can find real peace.”
St. Patrick-St. Anthony parishioners have risen to the many recent challenges, Poupart said. “There’s a massive change in how we are church,” she said. “We do not fully understand it yet because it’s unfolding. The gifts Jesus gives us are not wrapped in wrapping paper. We have to trust him.”