I imagine that the officers working our church this coming Christmas Eve will be busy, for this year we have the new—and hopefully the last—challenge of Covid 19 to good church order. The pandemic and its challenges to Christmas worship in the United States has been chronicled in some detail at National Catholic Reporter, with reports on how various dioceses are accommodating the expected large numbers of worshippers at Christmas, how the Vatican is permitting each priest the privilege of offering four Masses on Christmas Eve if the pastoral need exists, and church-state struggles on worship and civil Covid regulations.
The State of Florida has gained some measure of national notoriety for its loose Covid-19 precautionary standards. The optics as well as the content of the state’s guidance webpage offer little encouragement or hard restrictions, and the governor has declared that local jurisdictions cannot impose stricter measures than the state. That said, major retailers and the Disney complex in my county are running tight ships. Several of my patients tell me that Disneyworld is policing its masking, eating, and social distancing rules forcefully across its parks. Publix grocery stores, Costco, and Staples [my regular shopping haunts] require masks and social distancing for admission and service.
I am pleased to report that the Diocese of Orlando has publicly maintained strong safety policies. Our bishop, John Noonan, has situated all Covid discussion in the context of Christian service and responsibility to neighbor. There is still a dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation for those in vulnerable populations, no questions asked. It remains to pastors to enforce diocesan policies on such matters as communion in the hand and to develop unique strategies of safety best suited to the size of the parish and its configuration. Again, my home parish, Annunciation Church in Altamonte Springs, Florida, has met this challenge very well. After the two-month lockdown during the first surge in the spring, my wife and I, who fall in the “vulnerable population” as we are in our 70’s, experimented with returning to Mass by attending a sparsely populated noon Mass on Thursdays. Having established our comfort with the level of protection provided by the parish, we eventually returned to our favorite Saturday vigil Mass and continue to worship in peace. From where I sit, it is rare to see an unmasked individual. [I do note with some humor the appearance of a “Trump 2020” facemask at one of our Masses; I cannot remember if this was before or after the election. Maybe that mask will reappear on January 6.]
My parish is one of the largest in this diocese and possesses state of the art technology. Early on, the parish staff developed a system of on-line reservations for the weekend Masses. On Tuesday mornings the website is open for reservations for each of the following weekend Masses, and the names are duly logged in the parish records. On Saturday night when my wife and I enter the church for Mass, we must present ourselves at the door to a greeter with an Ipad tablet, who checks off our names. I have no problem with this method of insuring social distancing. It is not clear precisely what sort of algorithm is used to determine in my church [or any other in our diocese] what constitutes a safe maximum number for preserving social distancing. I am lousy at guessing crowd numbers, but my sense is that my parish admits about 400 persons maximum in a building that perhaps holds 1500. I do notice that although my Mass is frequently listed as “full” on the reservation site, there are a fair number of empty available pews, suggesting that attendance may lag reservations.
I think the biggest test of the adage, “see how Christians love one another,” will come on Christmas Eve. Historically, Christmas Eve is the largest assembly of the faithful; the phrase “Christmas and Easter Catholics” is not a cynical invention but a recognition that even the most marginal Catholic makes an appearance for Mass in the glow of holy nostalgia and sometimes spirited reinforcement from the punchbowl. This is a unique post-Vatican II challenge; in my youth there were no vigil Masses, just a standing room only Midnight Mass. As an altar boy I reveled in the beautiful music, poinsettias, and gold vestments of the Latin Mass. I also remember individuals passing out, and the unique aroma of alcohol induced bad breath. As my pastor would tell the altar boys, put out the candles quickly or this place will explode.
In the past half-century, the popularity of the earlier evening vigils has grown exponentially. When my wife and I were married over twenty years ago, our attendance at Midnight Mass was unshakeable. But then we drifted earlier, to a 9 PM Mass, and over the past decade, to a 7 PM Mass. We are not courageous enough to attend one of our 4 PM Masses. In my mother’s parish up near Buffalo, the pastor used to plead with the weekly 4 PM congregation not to attend the Christmas Eve 4 PM Mass, where the parking lot would be near full at 2 PM, even in the region’s worst lake-effect snow squalls.
Given these logistical challenges in an ordinary year, how does a parish maintain sanity and safety in a Covid environment? Evidently, even the Pope has been reflecting upon this problem, for he has given priests the permission to offer four Masses on Christmas, if parishes would want to offer extra Masses in smaller groups. Bishops in many dioceses are granting a special permission to begin Christmas Eve Vigil Masses at 2 PM [Church Law forbids Vigil Masses before 4 PM.] My parish has taken advantage of these permissions. But it took the extra step of a strict on-line registration policy, announcing well in advance from the pulpit, bulletin, and website that a preregistration was sine qua non for admission to any of the Masses.
Ground Zero for on-line reservations was December 18, last Friday, at 10 AM. My wife and I, for reasons of safety and my curiosity, had decided to reserve space for the novel 2 PM Vigil Mass. My wife literally had her finger over the button on her Ipad when the reservation site turned green. Evidently, so did many other folks, and we heard later that there were a few hiccups in service given the incredible on-line demand. The parish added two more Vigil Masses, but quickly all available space was booked. On the parish website now is the list of Masses with a statement that all Masses are now closed, and that those without reservations should watch the parish livestream of two Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
So, I wonder how my parish—or any parish--will manage the inevitable visit of the annual worshipper who never got the fax and will be expecting admission. As a Church we do not have collective experience with turning people away from our doors. [We are trained to think counteractively.] I will admit that in twenty years as a pastor I sometimes gave my local fire marshal gray hairs to include everyone for Christmas Eve or Easter Morning. My sermons on those occasions were pitched in part to the occasional worshipper or stranger to welcome them physically into the parish family, with an offer to assist anyone in second marriages, LGBQ estrangement, confessional fears, or dislike of me personally for my perceived shortcomings, of which there were plenty. And I was hardly the only pastor who brought this approach; a parish that does not evangelize on Christmas and Easter is missing the boat.
The Covid-19 environment puts a good parish and a conscientious pastor in a most uncomfortable predicament: protecting the safety of those in his building while extending pastoral concern to those who showed at least a spark of grace by turning up. How this dilemma is addressed will depend initially and most importantly on how the folks on the ground defuse the disappointment, surprise, or anger of those who cannot be admitted inside the Church. Again, as any minister will tell you, there are many Catholics on the cusp of leaving institutional contact at the next slight. And while such individuals may have doctrinal or personal issues with the Church, nothing is quite so definitive as having a door slammed in your face—on Christmas, no less.
There is a political edge to consider here, too. If the analyses of recent elections and polling are any indication, there is a strong current in the United States of fear that government and culture are overtly anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. In New York and Washington, D.C., for example, Catholics sought judicial relief for what they viewed as excessively harsh restrictions on the exercise of religion by local authorities. In Washington, for example, church gatherings were limited to 50 persons. It was probably galling for Catholics to live under these restrictions when the federal government was hosting gala balls for hundreds in indoor settings. I must think that somewhere in the United States—and Florida, with its statewide laissez-fare approach to the Covid crisis is as opportune a place as any—political activists in premeditated or spontaneous ways may demand access under the banner of freedom of worship.
It is my profound hope that the priests and lay ministers who will lead the Church’s parochial celebrations of the Lord’s birth have given prayerful thought to the unique challenges of this Christmas Season. Last Easter was observed when much of the country was shut down and there was more unity of purpose in protecting life and limb. But after many more months there is either lethargy or rage in the face of energized Covid-19, exacerbated by fear and uncertainty after a tumultuous election and economic woes. Amid this, our church ministers have gamely pushed on in the face of financial strain, material interruptions to ministry, and, in a very real way, missing their families in faith. My hope is that the liturgical Christmas “rush,” such as it is during an untamed pandemic, will energize our parish leaders Even within the confines of social distancing, tell them you appreciate them at Mass [and cover their backs, if necessary, as they work to protect ours at the church doors.]