Karen Adams, Wendy Klesch, Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

After weeks of celebrating Mass before empty pews due to the coronavirus pandemic, Father Ken Shuping was grateful to finally hear, “And with your spirit” when he prayed “The Lord be with you” on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, Sunday, May 24. 

To the 35 people sitting far apart and wearing masks at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, the pastor replied with a smile: “It’s really nice to hear a response to that.”

He noted that it was fitting that the first public Mass since March was held on this day. 

“God is with us in the midst of difficulty,” he said. “On the Feast of the Ascension, we remember that Christ is among us.” 

The priest noted that these have been long and challenging weeks during which parishioners have been hungry for Mass, and especially for Holy Communion.

“There is a sense of how wonderful the Eucharist is,” Father Shuping said earlier.

He noted a sense of solidarity with Catholics of other times and places, such as mission churches around the world, which often don’t have priests available and may wait months to receive the Eucharist. 

“And in the early days of Christianity, many monasteries had to wait weeks because they didn’t have a priest there,” he said. “They celebrated without the Eucharist but kept Christ in their hearts.”

At his parish of about 400 families, he invited people to Mass by email, starting with ministry members and their families. The number of Sunday attendees was manageable, and nobody had to be turned away. 

Many parishioners had told him that they would wait for daily Mass during the week to spread out their attendance since the Sunday requirement had been lifted for the moment.

Parishioners at Holy Trinity, Norfolk, remain six feet apart as they prepare to receive the Eucharist during Mass on Sunday, May 24. In addition to observing rules of social distancing, all congregants wore masks at Masses celebrated at parishes throughout the diocese. (Photo/Wendy Klesch)

‘Happy to be back’ 

As people arrived for the 10:30 Mass, people whispered to usher Bryan Boggs as he seated them: “I’m so happy to be back here!” 

Boggs felt the same way. 

“There’s been a big hole in our lives for a while,” he said. 

He noted that it has taken more effort for him to worship at home, to read and pray alone, but that it deepened his faith life. 

“But being back here in the church, you can close your eyes and let that feeling of Christ’s presence sweep across you. This is what I missed,” Boggs said.

Parishioner and lector Tom Fame, who attended with his wife and daughter, likewise was grateful to be back at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. 

“I really need the Eucharist,” he said. “As Catholic Christians, receiving the sacraments is what makes our practice of our faith different from others’ practice.”

Presence of God, others

But he also found that during this time of isolation, his faith life has grown through deeper prayer, study and reflection, which has led to “moments of grace” and opportunities for evangelization. 

“Each of us is called through baptism to advance the kingdom of God,” he said. “A hard experience also can be a time of grace and of appreciation for the gift of the Eucharist, which is the material source of spiritual life for me.” 

His wife, Leah Fame, said that she has continued to feel Christ’s presence while away from the church building. 

“We pray in the spiritual Communion prayer: ‘I embrace You as if You were already there (in my heart”,” she said. “I believe he is already there.”

Even so, she said it was wonderful to be back in church despite the strange circumstances of wearing a mask and sitting far apart, noting she had missing seeing the crucifix, statues and stained-glass windows. 

“But the best part was to be in the presence of others, and in the presence of God,” she said.

The Brown family — parents Chad and Angela, and their children Eva, Ben and Zack — sat together, all wearing Virginia Tech masks. 

“I was pretty emotional,” Angela Brown wrote later via email. “What a glorious moment receiving Christ after so long. Although they did tell us entering church they might not have seating for a Hokie section. So very grateful we are opening.”

Unexpected blessings

Father Shuping said there have been some unexpected blessings in these difficult months. 

“It’s been an interesting time for evangelization,” he said, noting that on the livestreamed Masses, he can see how many people watch and sometimes where they are from. “Our Masses are being watched all over the world, and I wonder, ‘How did these people in the Philippines or Brazil connect with us?’” 

He added that he has heard of non-Catholics who are curious about the Church and who enjoy watching online Mass privately. 

“For some people that’s easier than sitting in the back pew,” the priest said.

At the church itself, even while closed, he also has been surprised to see cars drive to the parking lot and sit there. They simply want to be on church property to pray, he said.

One day he met a non-Catholic man who came to visit the large statue of Mary outside the church. 

“He said it gave him a sense of peace,” Father Shuping said. 

These days, he added, like the apostles, people may feel alone but they are not. 

In his homily on May 24, he said the Ascension is not about Jesus leaving, but about his being more present.

“He walks among us and shows us what humanity was meant to be, what our lives were meant to be,” Father Shuping said. “Remember, Jesus said: ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age.’”

‘Thankful for Mass’

According to parishioners at St. Joseph, Petersburg, the nearly two months without public Masses has been a time for people to grow in their faith. It has been an opportunity to connect to private Masses virtually across the world, a time to deepen one’s prayer life and a time to evaluate their lives.

Like most Catholic churches across the diocese, with the exception of those in the City of Richmond and the County of Accomack, St. Joseph Parish again opened its doors for public Masses on May 23.  Approximately 140 people attended the four weekend Masses. Parishioners were quiet, contemplative, prayerful and joyful.

 “Everyone was excited to come back to Mass,” Deacon Bob Young said. “They were all thankful they could come. You could tell even in their masks they were smiling, and you could read it in their eyes.”

Before public Masses returned, the pastor, Father Brian Capuano, and the parochial vicar, Father Nicholas Redmond, used — and continue to use — the internet to nourish parishioners’ faith through livestreamed daily and weekend Masses, and Father Capuano’s “Sunday Catechesis” on Facebook Live each Sunday evening. 

 Zoom conferencing, also continuing, is used for faith formation classes: family-based religious education, adult classes and RCIA on Sundays and sacramental preparation classes on Saturdays, explained Deebe Robinson, coordinator of religious education.

Father Redmond gave a virtual tour of the church each Wednesday by spotlighting different areas such as the grounds, bell tower and stained-glass windows and on a more whimsical note, the attic. The program will continue in celebration of the parish’s bicentennial.

During COVID-19 restrictions, the church was also available for private prayer, the sacrament of reconciliation was offered daily and the anointing of the sick was administered when desired.

Cindy Merrix said “what Father Redmond and Father Capuano have done is comparable to having your boat capsize and then having a safety float appear in front of you.”

Cultivating faith

For some, the COVID-19 crisis has led to new habits.

For example, each evening Merrix and her husband Don listen to the daily Masses that were recorded that morning. She said the Masses are “uplifting” and “a great opportunity to focus at the end of the day.” They plan to continue “the spiritual experience.”

Parishioner Rick Fortune, furloughed as a security officer for the Chesterfield County court system, said “this time of isolation and quarantine” has given him the time to cultivate his faith. In addition to watching Father Redmond’s sermons and learning from Father Capuano’s catechism, he watches livestreamed Masses from the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the National Marian Shrine in Knock, Ireland, during which he prays the rosary. 

He also examines his life for his strengths, weaknesses and priorities so he can “become closer to God” and “become a better father, a better husband and a better worker.”  

“We need to look to God at times like this,” he said. “God does not go into isolation.”  

Some parishioners are also finding other ways to foster their faith. Diane Young and a friend read and discuss Catholic-based books, and Young does SoulCore exercises which combine core strengthening, stretching and functional movement with the prayers of the rosary. 

While parishioners said they appreciate having opportunities to nourish their faith during COVID-19, they said they have also “longed” for the return of public Masses, Father Capuano said.

“I can’t say thank you enough to the priests who have given us the opportunity to have the connections we’ve had over these past months,” Cindy Merrix said. “As wonderful as it’s been, it’s not the same as being there in person.”

Similarly, Robinson, speaking as a parishioner, said that although Fathers Capuano and Redmond “have done a super job livestreaming Masses,” the virtual liturgies are “no substitute for being physically present while the lord is physically present.”

‘Showing us what is important’

The parish followed Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s mandate for wearing masks and maintaining six feet of social distancing. Every other pew was cordoned off and ushers escorted individuals into the nave where they could choose to sit on the edges of a pew or in its center. Families could sit next to each other. Individuals kept six feet apart when they received the Eucharist.

The parish’s four weekend Masses ordinarily draw about 550 people each weekend. With social distancing, Father Capuano said the church, with a maximum occupancy of 300, could accommodate 70 people in the pews. No one was turned away because maximum seating was not reached; however, as the number of people attending Mass grows, seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Father Capuano said some parishioners who hadn’t “made their faith a serious priority” are doing so now as they have time to reflect on their lives.

“Crises have a way of showing us what is important,” Father Capuano said. “What I’ve seen that has been beautiful is people are being able to see that the sacramental and devotional life of the Church and the charitable works are important aspects of our lives.”

‘Everyone has a story’

“It’s nice to see your faces again,” said Father James Glass, pastor at Holy Trinity, Norfolk, at the start of Mass last Sunday.

“Or, at least,” he amended, “the top halves of your faces.”

Around 90 parishioners wearing a variety of masks — from medical-grade PPEs to folded collegiate bandanas — gathered the weekend of May 23-24 for one of the first public Masses held at the church since the easing of lockdown restrictions in the commonwealth. 

“It’s been wonderful being able to get back again,” said office manager Erika Erickson. “Everyone has their own story to tell. Some seniors have been home alone. Some parents have been at home, working and trying to homeschool their kids. You don’t know what experiences people have had over the past several weeks that they are bringing with them, bringing into the Mass.”

Even though it has been more than eight weeks since the Holy Trinity community has been able to come together, parishioner Trudy Franklin said it did not feel the least bit strange to be back.

 “It doesn’t feel odd at all. The situation is odd, certainly,” she said, “but this is where we are meant to be.”

Practice makes perfect

Hector Miranda, maintenance and facilities director at Holy Trinity, explained that the staff — who doubled as ushers during this first trial weekend — practiced in order to see how they might best put the new social distancing and safety guidelines into practice. 

“Father Glass stood at the front door and handed us pieces of paper with different numbers on them, representing the number of people in a group that might come in,” he said, “and we had to place them in the pews, according to how we would seat them.” 

Miranda said that although the team measured the lengths of the pews and assessed the dimensions of the sanctuary, marking off safe distances with blue tape, they found during their practice session that determining the number of people who could be admitted to Mass depended not so much on the size of the church, but rather on the varying sizes of the groups that might come through the front doors.  Four individuals, for example, require more space than a family of four.

“We found it wasn’t so simple,” he said. “That’s when we realized we would have to lower the numbers.”

Parishioners were asked to register beforehand using the online site Sign-Up Genius in order to give the staff some indication as to whom to expect. Those who do not have accesses to the Internet — or who simply did not have the chance to check the parish website — were able to register at a table set up at the door. 

“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to seat everyone,” Miranda said. “We didn’t want to turn anyone away.”

Unexpected blessings, unexpected challenges 

Aaron Hostetter, youth minister at Holy Trinity, and Mary Lewis, parish bookkeeper, noted that, for some, even the trying times of quarantine have brought unexpected blessings.  

“It’s given families more time to be together,” Lewis said, “to take a step back from their busy lives.” 

Hostetter said that when he served as a cantor at Easter, members of his extended family, scattered across California, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, all sat down at the same time to watch the Mass as it was livestreamed, sharing the experience. 

“That would never have happened otherwise,” he said. 

Both have noticed in their work, however, that parishioners have been missing the social interaction that comes with being part of a community. 

Lewis explained that, as the weeks went on, phone calls that began with quick questions about online donations occasionally evolved into neighborly chats.

“People want to talk to other people,” she said. “We all want community again.” 

Hostetter agreed, saying that he abandoned the idea of Zoom sessions for his religious education classes after he realized how tired his students were of living life via their screens.

“The kids are zoomed out,” Hostetter said. “They’re exhausted. They’ve actually been doing more work at home, keeping up with online sessions and assignments. I could announce any sort of trip right now, and the sign-up list would be full,” he added with a laugh.  

“We might not get to normal,” he said. “Normal can be a dangerous word, because it won’t ever be as though this never happened. But the kids just want to get to a point where they can be together.” 

After the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday, May 24, Aaron Hostetter, youth minister at Holy Trinity, Norfolk, and parishioner Luke DeHon wipe down the pews. Worship spaces in all parishes were to be cleaned and disinfected after each liturgy celebrated the weekend of May 23-24. (Photo/Wendy Klesch)

‘This is where we gather’

It was one of the first publicly attended Masses of the Easter season, but, in the end, the mood was uncharacteristically solemn as parishioners quietly filed out, each keeping to their separate households, while staff members and volunteers set about wiping down the ledges of the pews.

It won’t quite be the same, Father Glass said, until the time comes when parishioners are able to socialize again, but for now, he hopes it’s a start. 

Parishioner Luke DeHon, who stayed after the dismissal as a part of the cleaning crew, said that because he serves as a lector, he was able to attend Mass a few times during the quarantine, “but sometimes,” he said, “until the homily started, it felt more like a rehearsal.”

“But today, having everyone here from the beginning, having the community here, it all seems much different,” he said. “It feels like, ‘This is the Mass. This is where we gather. It’s a blessing, to be back.’”