By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Seating charts.

Social distancing.

Mask patrol.

A single entrance door.

Issues perhaps never addressed in the seminary but relevant today as pastors in the Diocese of Baton Rouge reopen churches after being shut down for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Many churches reopened the weekend of May 16-17, with the remainder scheduled to open May 23-24. Bishop Michael G. Duca announced the reopening of churches May 11 shortly after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced he was rescinding the stay-at-home order and entering into Phase One of Louisiana’s reopen plan.

“I hope our return to public Mass gives us a real chance to renew and deepen our appreciation for the Eucharist,” said Father Paul Counce, pastor at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge 

“The gathering of faithful Christians, the hearing of God’s own word in Scripture, the growth inspired by the clergy’s preaching, and the mystical experience of Jesus himself offering his own memorial sacrifice through the actions of the priest – that’s a lot going on,” he added. “Often more than we grasp.”

St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary pastor Father Jeff Bayhi said he is looking forward to celebrating Mass with parishioners, but similar to fellow clergy members, said, “it’s going to be trial and error. We don’t know exactly how our next arrangements are going to be.”

Edwards’ Phase One guidelines allow houses of worship, as well as many non-essential businesses to open with the caveat of 25 percent occupancy. Those attending Mass will be required to wear a mask at all times and distributing Communion presents unique challenges.

After the bishop’s announcement of reopening churches, pastors and parish staffs scrambled to resolve a logistical and unprecedented maze. Decisions such as what pews to rope off, how to seat the 25 percent who will be able to attend, assuring social distancing, how many entry doors to use and lining up volunteers to monitor the count as people enter and also make sure each person is wearing a mask.

Naturally, there were frenzied sanitizing undertakings as well as reshuffling liturgy schedules so that all parishioners would have the opportunity to attend Mass at least once a week, even if it is on a weekday.

“I’ve been surprised how much planning and work has to go into our reopening,” Father Counce said. ”Shutting down was emotionally devastating but getting the cathedral building ready for safe, spaced-out worship, worrying about limiting our attendance, finding people to handle our new liturgical ministry of ‘post-Mass disinfector,’ all of this really has been way more challenging than I expected.”

Perhaps most agonizing has been developing an equitable schedule for people to attend Mass. Many parishes have developed reservation systems that are available online. 

Additional weekend and weekday Masses have been scheduled. Assisting in the scheduling is Bishop Duca extending the Sunday Mass dispensation indefinitely. 

In some cases pastors are encouraging senior citizens or those most vulnerable to the virus to attend a weekday Mass, where attendance is typically lighter. And some parishes are asking parishioners, even if they are vulnerable,  to attend one Mass per week so that everyone has a chance to receive the Eucharist weekly.

Mercy can accommodate 1,000 people, meaning that 25 percent capacity is 250, Father Milano said. He explained that once the church is filled on a first-come, first-serve basis, people will be directed to the Parish Activity Center or they can remain in their car and listen to the 10:30 Mass broadcast on Catholic Community Radio. 

Communion will be distributed in the PAC and also a designated place under the drive-through on the side of the church to those coming from their cars. 

 “We feel that one of our biggest challenges is that we are not only a vibrant parish but we’re a ‘shrine’ for the diocese,” said Our Lady of Mercy Church in Baton Rouge pastor Father Cleo Milano. “It was not our goal to say, ‘I’m sorry but you can’t stay here, you have to go.’ ”

Father Chris Decker, pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Maringouin and, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Livonia and St. Joseph Church in Grosse Tete, is following a similar process, saying those who listen to the Mass on the radio will be able to receive Communion outside on the front portico at St. Joseph and St. Frances churches.

Father Charlie Landry, pastor at St. Gabriel Church in St. Gabriel, said the seating capacity is 300, meaning the number of people allowed to enter the church is 75. St. Gabriel’s seating capacity under the new guidelines will be 75, so parishioners must either reserve a spot for Mass online or call the office. 

A vigil Mass has been added, Sunday Mass times adjusted and Masses at Sacred Heart Chapel in Carville cancelled.

“Now when you do the math the total attendance for these four (weekend) Masses is 300,” Father Landry said. “This presents a problem.” 

“There will be some bumps and bruises along the way, but the beautiful thing is that we are coming back as a community and the body of Christ,” Father Landry said.

St. John has added two extra Masses, one on Sunday morning at St. John and a vigil Mass Our Lady of Assumption Chapel in Clinton. Father Bayhi said the additional Masses have been added with the idea of appealing to the most vulnerable population (65 years old and up).

“We’re hoping that provides comfort for people who, understandably so, might well be concerned about being in church with someone who has been going to work the whole time and maybe someone who may have been more exposed than they would feel comfortable with,” Father Bayhi said. “Like everybody else, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. It’s probably the best we can do right now because we’re all up in the air, we’re not really sure how many people are going to return, we’re not really sure how many people are willing to wear masks.”

“The beauty is that after the long, difficult days of quarantine we have an opportunity to move forward,” Father Milano said. “We are all walking together and in faith knowing this will pass and we will be stronger and better.”