Parishes work to ensure safety for all during Mass

When Bishop Frank J. Dewane announced that May 18, 2020 would be the resumption of public Mass at churches in the Diocese of Venice, a deadline for Parishes to be ready was set. At the same time directives and guidelines for reopening were provided to the Parish.

Planning sessions took place at Parishes across the Diocese and included all who are involved in preparing the Mass for the Sacred Liturgy, including the priests, deacons, sacristans, lectors, cantors, musicians and members of the maintenance team.

A hose stretches across pews at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice on May 13, 2020, as part of an effort to clean the church for the resumption of Mass on May 18, 2020.

These groups typically gather ahead of major Church celebrations such as Advent, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week and the Easter Season, to name a few. The gatherings the week of May 11 were quite different. Instead of preparing for a festive celebration with large crowds, the planning included figuring out how to keep individuals and families separated and safe while preserving the dignity of the Sacred Liturgy.

Following Florida Department of Health guidelines – calling for 50 percent capacity and 6-foot separation – the planners had to reimagine how best to use the worship space to balance between safety and the needs of the faithful. Parish have been open for prayer with enforced separation since early May. Thus, the planning for private prayer laid the groundwork for opening for public Mass.

In a note to parishioners, which was followed by a video message, Administrator of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish Father Joseph Gates explained what was happening: “Over the past few weeks during the coronavirus pandemic I stated several times that when we resume public Masses, the way in which we “Gather to Worship’ was going to be different. At the same time, I did not know what that ‘difference’ was going to be, but I knew change was coming. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass would be the same, but the way we “Gather to Pray” would have some unique modifications. Some of you may not like the changes but know that I respect your opinion.”

This is a proposed configuration to ensure social distancing at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish in Parrish for the reopening of public Mass on May 18, 2020.

Father Gates noted that an honest conversation took place between the priests of the Diocese and Bishop Dewane where many thoughts, concerns and ideas were shared, but it was agreed to have this transitory stage of gathering in public as a community once again. “Please keep that in mind and let us be thankful we can open our doors to worship once again. Because if we are not careful, our doors could close once more due to a second swell in the pandemic.”

Ahead of reopening for Mass, Parishes went through a deep cleaning and put up signs, as well as floor markings throughout churches to indicate the flow of people, available pews and even spacing for when the faithful come forward to receive Holy Communion. Parishes have also committed to doing a cleaning between each Mass.

Several Parishes have also posted notices and instructional videos indicating procedures for the faithful to follow to ensure everyone’s health and safety including how to receive Holy Communion in the hand while wearing a mask. These notices are asking for patience from the faithful as each Parish adapts to the changes and work to ensure Mass is available for as many people as possible, but all within safety guidelines.

“How temporary this transitory stage will be is unclear,” Father Gates said. “But we are blessed to gather once again to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in that we should Rejoice!”

Parish messages also include notices about changes to the seating, with some noting the maximum capacity of spaces (some as few as 30 and as high as 300). These are at maximum one-half of capacity of the respective Church and reflect the need to maintain distancing based on the specific layout of the worship space. In Parishes where there are several priests, overflow Masses will be offered in the Parish Hall.

Other items of interest indicated in notices included: masks must be worn; bring your own hand sanitizer; stay home if you are sick or are in a “greater risk” category per the Centers for Disease Control (the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday has been lifted until June 28, 2020); space will be limited and you may have to attend Mass at a different time; entering only through the main doors; follow all directions of greeters and ushers; maintain distancing and limit socializing in the church; in some Parishes, Holy Communion will be distributed in the pews (a Eucharistic minister going row by row); Communion to be received only in the hand; a central location for the offertory; orderly dismissal by rows; and all other Parish activities remain suspended until further notice.

In his May 12, 2020 letter to the faithful announcing the celebration of Holy Mass with a congregation present, Bishop Dewane concluded by writing: “The Faithful of the Diocese of Venice have remained resolute in their faith during these unprecedented times, vibrantly expressing their Spiritual Communion with Christ and His Church. Still, I am aware that there is a hunger for the Eucharist. My prayerful hope is that, strengthened by the Bread come down from Heaven, you will emerge from these times with stronger faith.  As we return to Holy Mass, let us with the psalmist, raise our voices in praise of God:  I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’”