Father Chris Celentano, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in North Syracuse, distributes Holy Communion to parishioners May 30 during a Mass celebrated in the church parking lot. The parish, along with other parishes throughout the diocese, celebrated May 30 and 31 its first public Masses since March 16. (Sun photo | Chuck Wainwright)
Catholic Sun staff reports
Father Chris Celentano tested the audio system with words of welcome to St. Rose of Lima worshipers May 31 and invited the outdoor congregation to “make a joyful noise.” The faithful parked in some 60 vehicles responded with a chorus of honks.
The public Mass was one of the first celebrated in the diocese since Bishop Douglas J. Lucia suspended public Masses March 16 amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. New York has been under stay-at-home orders since March 22; most regions of the state, including Central New York and the Southern Tier, were allowed May 18 to begin resuming some business operations, with restrictions. Bishop Lucia announced May 22 celebration of public Masses would be permitted beginning May 30 in churches with no more than 10 people, or in church parking lots at 50% capacity, with attendees remaining in their vehicles.
Celentano began planning for a parking lot Mass around the second week of the state’s stay-at-home order. His first task was researching and ordering audio equipment. He borrowed a trailer from a friend to build an outdoor, covered platform for an altar — a wise decision, as rain poured down in the half hour preceding Mass. Father Celentano reconfigured the parking spots to improve sightlines and traffic flow, and even climbed to the roofs on the parish campus to scout the possibility of celebrating Mass there. (The roof was deemed not reverent or safe enough to celebrate on.)
St. Rose was one of nearly 40 parishes that offered in-person worship services May 30 and 31. Others continued to livestream Masses. Dispensation from Sunday Mass obligation continues.
Before pastors could celebrate Mass publicly, they were required to complete and submit to the bishop’s office a detailed, 16-point planning form. A 10-page document, “Instructions for the Celebration of the Sacraments When Public Gatherings Resume,” spells out the diocese’s rules. They address sanitizing, social distancing, crowd size, and other protocols.
St. Rose’s liturgy was broadcast to the assembly via loudspeakers, an FM radio frequency, and a smartphone app. As rain slowed to an occasional sprinkle, Father Celentano offered a homily that acknowledged the joy of worshiping together again before shifting gears to address outrage over the death of an unarmed black man while in Minneapolis police custody.
“I watched a man be killed on television and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind,” he said, referring to George Floyd, who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes. A widely viewed video shows Floyd repeatedly pleading, “I can’t breathe.”
“I’ve seen people treated wrongly because of the color of their skin or where they came from or because they didn’t have power,” Father Celentano continued.
“This isn’t a blanket statement on any organization or any peoples — it is a call to Christians to recognize that there is evil in this world,” he said. “And you and I are called to be the antidote to the evil because we’ve been given the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? That means speaking up. That means standing out. That means proclaiming the mercy and the love of God, not only in how we live but with what we do.
“Brothers and sisters, we’re gathered today because of love — the love of Christ poured out on the cross. And you and I can change our area that we came from, we can change our homes, we can change this country, we can change the world, but we can’t do it apart from Jesus Christ. That’s what we’re called to do.”
Sun broke through the clouds during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, about half an hour into the Mass. Wearing masks, and with hand sanitizer at the ready, Father Celentano and Msgr. Francis Osei Nyarko distributed Holy Communion to worshipers one car at a time. Father Celentano said he saw a range of emotions on the faces of communicants, recalling one woman’s tears as she received the Eucharist.
Mass ended with encouragement from the pastor — “Let’s change the world” — and another round of honks.
Calling on the Holy Spirit in Syracuse
The following morning, Bishop Lucia celebrated the 9:45 a.m. Mass at Syracuse’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
“It is wonderful to welcome you on this Pentecost Sunday to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Although we’re not full, we have more people here than I’ve seen in a couple months,” Bishop Lucia said with a laugh.
As the faithful celebrate the “birthday of the Church” on Pentecost, “we also pray for a rebirth, a new birth, for our own faith community. But not only just for our faith community today, but also for our local community. We pray for an end to all violence and we pray also that we will always hold — hold close — the dignity and sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, and that close to our hearts will always be God’s commandments, especially those that talk about honor and those that remind us not to kill.”
Religious leaders, public officials, and people of faith have in recent weeks debated whether to reopen houses of worship as the rate of coronavirus infections and deaths from COVID-19 decline. President Donald Trump on May 22 called on governors to allow churches to reopen that weekend, raising questions about his authority to do so and religious liberty in regard to government orders to close or reopen religious spaces.
Diocesan and local officials awaited word last week that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would increase the capacity for houses of worship to 25% of capacity. Cuomo had not publicly announced that change by May 30. Onondaga County County Executive Ryan McMahon said in public briefings that he supports an increase to 25%, but on May 29 left the decision to religious leaders’ judgment.
“Having large gatherings where you cannot socially distance is not a good idea,” McMahon said May 29. “I do implore all our religious institutions: everything has to be physical distancing. Everything has to be masks. Keep your congregation safe. You have to be smart.”
Bishop Lucia has acknowledged pressure to resume public Masses, but has consistently stressed the safety of the faithful and clergy. “While I am excited about the reopening of our parishes for public worship, I am still very concerned that we mix our expression of faith with prudential sense on how we proceed in the days, weeks, and months ahead,” he wrote in a May 27 letter to the faithful.
Clergy and worshipers must follow strict protocols to prevent spreading the coronavirus.
At the Cathedral, a volunteer checked temperatures and names at the door. More volunteers directed worshipers to their seats and to receive Communion. An organist played and a cantor sang, but there was no choir.
Pentecost is “the feast of being sent forth. The wind blows open the doors” and the apostles are sent forth to speak God’s language, the bishop said in his homily. The apostles left the Upper Room speaking God’s language: love. “Love is the universal language,” he said. “Love is God’s language and it’s the one language that all of us can understand.”
That’s the message of Pentecost, the day Bishop Lucia chose to resume limited public Masses. “It is so good to be with you, it is so good to see you,” he said. “But as we leave this place today, let’s not forget also why we are being sent forth from here: to speak God’s language, to speak the language of love.”
Joanne and Eric Tills, along with daughter Emily, attended the 9:45 a.m. Mass. Residents of Liverpool, they’ve been parishioners of the Cathedral for about six years. “We missed this. We missed the community,” Joanne said.
Being back at church felt good, she said. “It’s not the same, but it brings me peace.”
Emily agreed: “Watching Mass on TV at home is just not the same as being here.”
Father Fred Daley, pastor of All Saints Church in Syracuse, celebrated an online Mass as well as three parking lot Masses this weekend. In his homily, he connected the fire of Pentecost to the spiritual fire of Christian ministry.
“While the buildings have been closed, that fire of the spirit has been working through our community and working through people of goodwill for these last few months and miracles continue to happen in the midst of suffering,” he said during his homily.
All Saints will open 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays for the Legion of Mary, who will follow reopening restrictions as they participate in prayer and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
Welcoming new members of the faith family
The first public Masses celebrated at St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton and St. Joan of Arc mission in Morrisville saw pastor Father Jason Hage welcome four of the parish’s RCIA candidates into full communion with the Church.
Candidates and catechumens typically conclude their journeys to joining the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. With public Masses suspended during Holy Week, those rites had been put on hold.
The parking lots at St. Mary’s and St. Joan’s can’t accommodate a parking lot Mass, but given the ability to have 10 people inside the churches, “Deacon Paul [Lehmann] and I came up with the idea of receiving our four RCIA candidates into the Church,” said Father Hage. “When we presented it to the pastoral council, everyone lit up.”
The newest members of the faith family were welcomed during three Masses over the course of the weekend.
“All four said they felt so connected to the community that day even though they weren’t physically present,” Father Hage said, thanks in part to the many prayers and notes of support sent by parishioners.
Celebrating Mass with members of the community once again was emotional for Father Hage. “Nothing can ever replace the gift of physical presence,” he said. “That’s so tied into our sacramentology — that’s why you can’t go to confession over the phone or over FaceTime, because the gift of the physical presence of the person is part of the sacrament. The experience of the sacrament is somehow always incomplete if the Body of Christ is not present. Sacraments exist for people.”
Faithful ‘living the Pentecost message’ in Broome lot
“I’m pleased that I went, it feels so good to go back where we belong,” said Maria Nardoni.
Nardoni was among the people in nearly 40 cars at each of the parking lot Masses on Saturday and Sunday at St. Vincent de Paul Blessed Sacrament Church in Vestal.
There was bright sunshine on both days as entering cars stopped to confirm their occupants were on the reservation list. They were then directed to alternating spaces in advance of the liturgies.
The altar was set on a raised platform underneath one tent. Music equipment and a sound system were under another, just in case of rain. It never did get wet, but a strong wind blew through on both days.
People had to remain in their vehicles until the priest or a deacon stopped with the Eucharist directly in front of them. Masks and hand sanitizer were then required for all.
“I did everything they told me to do,” Nardoni recalled — receiving Communion, removing her mask to consume the host, and getting back in the car.
“The biggest joy was to watch the reception of Communion,” said Mary Haust of watching as Father Jim Serowik and two deacons “worked through the lot.”
“It became to me you are living the Pentecost message,” Haust said.
“Coming to the people,” she said, “is what the Disciples were charged to do.”
Haust served on the committee of parishioners and staff that worked out the protocols and details within a couple of days so Mass could be held over the weekend.
“I think the teamwork and the people coming together made all the difference in the world. I decided the Holy Spirit is in charge,” Haust said.
“We have a lot of good things in place,” she added. “We’ve got that mind-set, we’ve got social media.”
And she credits Joe Fleury, head of the Emergency Management Committee. Fleury wrote a 100-plus-page binder outlining parish emergency management, with a new section for dealing with the coronavirus.
“You always think about the safety aspects,” he said of organizing the parking lot Masses. “What needs to happen, kind of pinpoint every task that has to be done and make sure it’s done.”
“Verify that it’s done and then record that on a checklist for each Mass,” Fleury added.
Complete details on what was required didn’t come until the middle part of last week. That allowed about two days to register. Parish secretary Linda Kacmar fielded dozens of telephone calls from those wishing to attend.
Other staffers developed a brochure outlining protocols and procedure for those attending the Masses. Parishioners volunteered to assist with readings. Some also walked with hand sanitizer in case it was needed by the priest and deacons during Communion distribution.
Fleury felt the planning helped as everything ran smoothly — including the volunteers, the parking, and the sound system. He noted all positive comments from parishioners as they were leaving.
Trustee Greg Hrostowski was among a half-dozen parking attendants for each Mass. As he checked in cars at one entrance, he noticed something in the faces of the people.
“A sense of real joy, but regret in having to keep socially distant,” Hrostowski said. “We need to be able to participate with others again as a church family.”
“At the same time needing to suppress the natural desires to touch, reach out, and greet members unseen for two months had to be, and was, enforced,” he added
“I believe that families and individuals came and left full of anticipation and open to the Holy Spirit being at home in their hearts,” Hrostowski concluded.
Haust also felt something at the parking lot Mass that “brought such peace and presence to me”: “The breeze is blowing through the car, the trees are leaning in the breeze, and the cloud formations are so alive.”
The windy conditions at the Masses reminded one of the readings from the Acts of the Apostles for Pentecost: “Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.”
Other parking lot Masses were held in Broome County over the weekend. That included the Catholic Communities of Eastern Broome at three of four churches: Our Lady of Lourdes, Windsor, with Father Robert Dwyer; St. Mary’s, Kirkwood, with Father Edward Zandy; and St. Joseph’s, Deposit, with Father Dan Quinn of the Diocese of Albany.
Barbara Kane, Parish Life Director for Eastern Broome, said: “Things went very well and people were thrilled to receive Holy Communion.”
Kane noted that at St. Joseph’s, Deposit, all 20 parking spots were taken within three hours of reservation and a waiting list was created.
“They were thrilled to see each other. It went very well,” Kane said of the Sunday Masses.
Deacon Tom Picciano reported from Broome County. A journalist, he has been writing for the Catholic Sun for 21 years and currently ministers at St. Vincent de Paul Blessed Sacrament Parish in Vestal.