By LINDA BEHRENS
In his June 4 video message, Bishop Michael McGovern extended an invitation to parishioners of the Diocese of Belleville to attend Mass in person once again.
“Phase 5 allows us more leeway on how we gather together and assemble in order to worship the Lord at Sunday Mass,” Bishop McGovern said.
The Phase 5 Updated Mass and Liturgy Guidelines, published by the diocese, recognizes the past 15 months have been an extremely challenging time for everyone – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
The new guidelines also contain the news everyone has been waiting a year to hear: churches can go back to100 percent capacity, and registration is no longer required.
The report states, “As the state of Illinois moves into Restore Illinois Phase 5, we are updating current mitigation protocols per the CDC and state and local health department guidelines. We will continue to review our guidelines per local, state and CDC guidance. These guidelines could revert at any time based on their specific guidance.”
These new guidelines began the weekend of June 12-13.
The new guidelines also recommend a section of the church be reserved for those who would feel more comfortable to remain segregated, masked and social distanced.
Vaccination status will be based on the honor system. Vaccinated individuals are not required to wear masks unless they feel more comfortable doing so. Unvaccinated individuals should wear a mask and maintain social distancing.
Worshipers are to be reminded that if they are experiencing symptoms or feel ill, they should stay home from Mass – even after the obligation is reinstated. The obligation to attend Mass will be reinstated in the upcoming months by Bishop McGovern in coordination with the Bishops of the Province.
The complete four-page document may be found on the diocese website, www.diobelle.org, under “Reopening Resources.”
“People will still have concerns about being together in person at Mass,” Bishop McGovern says. “We are trying to keep everyone safe, the people in the pews safe, and we are thinking of our clergy. Many of our priests are older. As they are saying multiple Masses on weekends, we want them to continue to remain safe.”
The bishop thanked everyone for their patience during these months, and especially recognized the volunteers in parishes, churches and shrines who generously gave of themselves by sanitizing the churches so people could attend Mass.
Msgr. John T. Myler, rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter, says the reopening at the Cathedral is going well.
“We’ve had the blessing of plenty of room, even throughout the pandemic’s most difficult months.”
He adds that weddings are resuming, and families are coming together for funerals.
“It’s nice to have baptisms with many grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins present,” he says.
“Very importantly, the reopening of hospitals and nursing homes is essential for parish ministry. The sick and the very elderly need the strength of the Sacraments and the visits of their priests.”
Lizanne Young, Director of Faith Formation at Immaculate Conception Parish, Columbia, said the timing of the reopening could not have been better for her parish.
“We received the news about 100 percent capacity just days before our Confirmation Masses on June 13, which allowed candidates to bring as many family members, friends and supporters as they wanted,” she said.
The parish experienced heartbreak and joy in June, as they celebrated the life of their sacramental minister Fr. Gary Hogan, C.R., on June 15 with no restrictions on numbers for his funeral Mass, and held a full-meal reception afterwards. On June 27, parishioners packed the church again in tribute to retiring principal Mike Kish, followed by another reception.
“We were so blessed to be able to use our worship space and parish center in the ways they were designed, so that all are welcomed,” Young said.
Father Robert Flannery, pastor at St. Francis Xavier in Carbondale, agrees with the importance of visits by priests.
“During the lockdown, I was able to visit only a few parishioners in the hospital. One had COVID-19. I was gowned and masked and could only step just inside the room. The nurse did the actual anointing while I said the words.”
The first funeral he had after the quarantine began was with just him, one family member and someone from the cemetery in attendance. The family is planning a memorial when everyone can travel.
Father Flannery is especially happy that weddings can be held again.
“One of the most difficult calls I had to make during the pandemic was during the first week of the quarantine. I had to tell a couple we had to cancel their wedding,” he says.
Fortunately, the family was understanding, and the couple was married this past September.
Immaculate Conception Parish’s Young agrees that the most difficult parts of the pandemic were the funerals and weddings that could not be shared, on top of the restrictions to the regular Masses. There were some silver linings, however.
“We now have an incredibly robust video ministry led by Mary Boser on the parish side, and Joe Gilbreth for school Masses,” she says. “We have three teams to call on for weekly Masses, funerals and weddings, and our junior high students are also being trained for school and parish Masses. If we had not had pandemic restrictions, we probably would never have known the joy of friends and relatives across the country being able to share in communal prayer in real time, and our homebound parishioners are also regularly connected. Video Ministry is here to stay.”
Father Flannery notes that parishioners are coming back to church, perhaps as many as 100 each Sunday.
He celebrated a wedding Mass on June 26 and his first nursing home Mass was on July 2. He is starting to visit the homebound again.
“During the pandemic, volunteers put together gift baskets for the homebound and regularly sent notes,” Father Flannery adds, “but it is not the same as an in-person visit.”
Fortunately, parishioners continued to financially support the parish with their donations, with more people signing up to make electronic payments.
Father Flannery attended the Assembly of the Association of United States Catholic Priests June 21-24 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
During a retreat as part of this gathering, Father Michael Joncas, a well-known liturgical theologian and composer, stressed that now is the time for priests, as well as their parishes and beyond, to transform rather than just restore in their own lives of faith, as we together move forward moving out of the pandemic.
“How should we look at parish life? We need to look at it with fresh eyes, to re-energize and re-envision. It was the perfect theme coming out of the pandemic,” Father Flannery says.
Watching a livestreamed Mass via computer, phone or television was the only way to participate in Mass during quarantine. Most parishes provided this opportunity, and some may continue to offer it.
“The live streaming of Sunday Mass has been good; however, it is not a substitute for presence at Mass,” adds Msgr. Myler.
“For the actual return to Mass, we’ll have to make sure that the music is good, that the preaching is good, that the Eucharist is celebrated reverently and with joy.”
He continues, “People have hungered for the nourishment of Holy Communion – and for beauty and fellowship. That’s not been possible ‘live streamed.’ Now is the time to return!”
Now that Phase 5 is in place, the diocese is inviting people to come back to Mass in person.
“We invite you, if you feel comfortable, to come back and join us in our pews and in our churches, as we continue to praise and worship God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together in the Holy Eucharist,” Bishop McGovern says.
“Hope to see you in church soon.”