Father Stephen Pietrowski, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Centerport, N.Y., celebrates an early morning Sunday Mass near a harbor during the COVID-19 pandemic July 26, 2020. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Outdoor Masses during Pandemic

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Father David Bonnar“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).

When people gather in the name of Jesus, more often than not the meeting takes place in a church, usually in the context of holy Mass, which often involves a significant portion of a community beyond just two or three individuals. The pandemic, however, has made it increasingly difficult for this gathering to happen because of capacity restrictions that limit the number of people able to attend holy Mass. For example, in most cases, churches cannot exceed 25% of their original capacity. In one of the churches in our parish, the one we are currently using for weekday Mass, this means we cannot have more than 90 people, whether it is a weekday or Sunday.

Also, the requirement to clean and sanitize the church building after every gathering presents challenges to staffing, finances and time. As a consequence, many pastors have opted for outdoor Masses.

Outdoor Masses are not that new to our tradition. Many popes, when visiting foreign countries, have celebrated outdoor Masses to accommodate large crowds. Stadiums and town squares have been turned into outdoor churches at various times. To this day, the pope, from time to time, celebrates holy Mass outdoors in St. Peter’s Square.

Some might wonder why anyone would bypass the majestic beauty of a church building in favor of being in the outdoors with the risk of facing weather elements, which no one can control. Most priests would probably prefer celebrating holy Mass in a church building on a marble altar with the relics of the saints. There is something prayerful and inspiring to being in such a sacred and quiet space. But this is not a normal time.

The pandemic has resulted in some interesting innovations that include not only livestreaming the Mass but also celebrating outdoor Masses in church parking lots. By purchasing a transmitter and setting it to a particular frequency on the car radio, people remain in their car and participate in the holy Mass. When it comes time to receive holy Communion, they exit their cars and get in line wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing. There is even a box strategically placed for them to place their Sunday offering if they are not already giving online.

The beauty of this accommodation is that there are no limits to how many people can come to the Mass. What is more, there is no need to clean and sanitize the church building. Above all, the outdoors offers what appears to be a safer environment that mitigates the spread of the virus.

While this sounds so simple, it took some time to perfect it and work out the kinks. Outdoor Masses, although safe, involve a lot of work. For example, there needs to be a tent or canopy in place for the altar. At one of our sites, we use a tent while at the other we are using the deck of the rectory, which overlooks the parking lot. We are looking to shore up both of these sites more permanently as we prepare for winter. Until there is a vaccine, I believe we will have no other recourse but to continue the outdoor Masses.

Keyboards had to be obtained to have music at every Mass, for as St. Augustine says, “He who sings prays twice.” Someone has to check the microphones and monitor the sound. For every Mass, the sacristan has to set up and transport all of the essentials for Mass.

Parking lot attendants direct vehicles and try to ensure not only safety but visibility. It is hard to be seated in a Ford Focus behind a big SUV. One of the parking lot attendants walks around with a sign of the radio frequency: 89.5. Some people bring a lawn chair and set up camp to socially distant from others in the orchard.

What is most inspiring is seeing all of these cars along with everyone walking in line to receive holy Communion, even though the Sunday obligation has been temporarily lifted. These parking lot Masses do not allow us to enjoy the stained-glass windows of the saints; however, they do enable us to see, every week, saintly people who deeply desire to gather in the name of Jesus and receive the holy Eucharist. Not even the wind, the threat of rain, the intense heat or the bitter cold will stop them from meeting in the name of Jesus, even if it is outdoors in a parking lot.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 16 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

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