May 29, 2020

Weekend Masses resume in some parishes after two-month hiatus

Susie Dickman, prays after receiving Holy Communion at St. Louis Church in Batesville on May 23. (CNS photo/Katie Rutter)

Susie Dickman, prays after receiving Holy Communion at St. Louis Church in Batesville on May 23. (CNS photo/Katie Rutter)

By Natalie Hoefer, Sean Gallagher, Katie Rutter and John Shaughnessy

More than two months had passed since Catholic churches across central and southern Indiana were closed to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

May 23-24 marked the first time weekend Masses could be publicly celebrated in the archdiocese.

Those who participated in their first public weekend Mass since the middle of March used words like “terrific,” “special” and “emotional” to describe the experience of once again worshiping in community and receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.

But they did so in churches limited to 20-30 percent capacity per archdiocesan recommendations to better adhere to safety and social distancing guidelines. They wore face masks and sanitized their hands. They sat separated by roped-off pews.

And for many reasons—logistics, safety, local restrictions—approximately 25 of the archdiocese’s 126 parishes opened on May 23-24.

The Criterion visited three of those faith communities that celebrated public weekend Masses on May 23-24: St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville, St. Louis Church in Batesville and St. Martin of Tours Church in Martinsville.

Others spoke with pastors of parishes that chose to wait until May 30-31 or later to open their doors for weekend Masses.

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, together with all Indiana bishops, has extended the dispensation for the obligation to participate in Mass on Sundays to all the faithful until Aug. 15. All people 65 or older and those who are sick or who have medical conditions are asked to remain at home.

Below is a glimpse of what the path back to normalcy looks like for the Church in central and southern Indiana, told through the reactions, thoughts and insights of priests and lay Catholics as parishes cautiously begin to call the faithful back to worship at their churches.

‘Like a wonderful present’

Before restrictions were put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Rhonda Meriwether attended Mass three times a week.

So to receive Christ in the Eucharist once again during Mass at St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville on May 23 “was special,” she said.

It was special in more ways than one—May 23 happened to be her birthday.

“It was like a wonderful present,” said Meriwether, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Shelby County. Father Michael Keucher serves as the parish’s sacramental minister, as well as pastor of St. Joseph Parish.

“Sometimes, you can take [the Eucharist] for granted,” she said. “It was just so special … . It’s hard to describe it.”

Meriwether was among about 35 people who participated in the 5 p.m. Mass. Although the parish plans to celebrate Mass outdoors through June to avoid limiting the number of parishioners able to attend, rain drove the May 23 Massgoers inside.

Indoors or out, those worshiping at the liturgy were “moved” to be at Mass, said Father Keucher.

“People were clearly very moved by [receiving Communion],” he said. “They missed it a lot. I could see their devotion in some of the tears that I saw.

“People just really have missed being able to receive our Lord. So, it was a great joy today to be able to give our Lord to them.”

‘It opened my eyes’

Lisa Helms experienced some of the feelings Father Keucher described when she attended her first public weekend Mass in 10 weeks at her home parish of St. Martin of Tours in Martinsville.

“I’ve been watching Mass online,” she said. “But to be back here with my fellow parishioners was a good feeling. It was kind of emotional.”

Yet there were those unable to receive the Eucharist as well, a fact that saddened parish administrator Father Jegan Peter.

“I wish more people were able to participate” in the Mass, he said. The temporary indoor capacity guidelines limit the number of worshipers in the church to 150. Parishioners register for Mass online in advance to stay within the limit.

Mostly, Father Peter said, “I’m really sorry for parishioners 65 and older who aren’t able to be here. This is tough for them, not to be present at Mass. It’s very upsetting for them.”

He also worries about protecting his parishioners from the coronavirus as they return to worship in the church.

“Celebrating Mass with people was excellent,” he said. “But I’m so concerned about keeping people safe.”

The parish followed archdiocesan guidelines to ensure that safety. Every other pew in the church was roped to maintain social distance, masks and hand sanitizer were available in the narthex, and an usher sanitized each person’s hands as they left their pew for Communion.

After Mass, Father Peter asked anyone who felt comfortable to stay and help with sanitizing the pews. Many of the nearly 40 people present pitched in.

Such measures were an eye-opener for parishioner Eliza Vanderwalle.

“I work at Kroger, so I’m used to seeing people in close proximity,” she said. “Since everyone here was keeping social distance and using hand sanitizer, it opened my eyes to the reality that [the pandemic] isn’t over.

‘The Church is coming back to life’

And yet, hope prevails.

“We’re actually experiencing a sort of Easter right now, because it’s like the Church is coming back to life in this archdiocese,” said Father Stanley Pondo, pastor of St. Louis Parish in Batesville, after celebrating Mass in the church on March 23.

“The things the Church is meant to do—to worship God, to celebrate the Eucharist, to provide reconciliation and other sacraments—those things are coming back.

“So in a certain way we’re experiencing Easter. We’re experiencing it late, but we’re experiencing it.”

St. Louis parishioner Gary Kuntz felt it.

“It was terrific, just the feeling to hold the body ... of Jesus in your own hands physically,” he said after the Mass. “I was really glad for it.”

He was among the more than 30 parishioners at the Mass, well below the church’s percentage capacity of 225. Ushers will count the number of people as they arrive for Mass to ensure that number is not exceeded.

Kim Koehne, who also attended the Mass, said it was “awesome to be back—I’m really excited to just be in church.”

She first returned to the church the week prior for the sacrament of reconciliation “for the first time in months, and that alone was absolutely incredible,” she said.

“So now to be back and to actually receive Jesus truly and not just an act of spiritual communion is incredible.

“You don’t realize what you didn’t have or what you’re missing out on, so now that we have it, I don’t want to take it for granted.”

First confession, then adoration, then Mass

At the same time, many parishes across the archdiocese have taken a slower approach to re-opening their churches to the public for weekend Masses.

When Indianapolis Mayor Joseph Hogsett limited the number of people at indoor church services to 25 starting on May 15, some parishes—including St. Thomas Aquinas and Christ the King—chose to wait at least until June 6-7 to celebrate public weekend Masses.

Father Todd Riebe, who ministers at both parishes, didn’t think the 25-person limit was reasonable.

“It would take the wisdom of Solomon to determine who could participate in any given Mass,” Father Riebe wrote in a note to St. Thomas parishioners. “What would we use—a lottery system, the sign-up genius, the first-come-first-serve basis, or by invitation only? No one of those seems quite right to me.”

For this reason, he said in the letter, the parish “will stand in solidarity with one another and wait until the weekend of June 6-7 to celebrate the first public Masses at St. Thomas. This is a decision that several parishes in the North Deanery have made.

While St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg will wait to have its first weekend Masses on May 30-31, parishioners have been embracing the re-opening of their parish since May 16. On that day, 33 people received the sacrament of reconciliation from their pastor Father Sean Danda during two hours of drive-up confessions.

“First, outdoor confessions, then indoor adoration. Next, weekend Masses,” Father Danda noted in an interview with The Criterion. “Each phase is dependent on the other and has been evaluated and revised accordingly.

“We recognize that no human being can 100 percent take away all chances of infection, but we can be as responsible as possible while upholding the dignity of the sacraments.”
 

(Katie Rutter is a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington. To read the archbishop’s letter along with the archdiocesan plan for the resumption of the public celebration of the sacraments, log on to www.archindy.org.)

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