By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

As many churches in the Diocese of Baton Rouge reopened the weekend of May 16-17, pastors were not sure what to expect.  

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Small bottles of holy water, missalettes and armbands that say “Pray Louisiana!” on one side and “Heal Our Land” on the other were distributed after all Masses at St. Patrick Church in Baton Rouge the weekend of May 23-24. The parish requested 500 bracelets from Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office. The idea was originally introduced at the governor’s Prayer Breakfast on March 10.  Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

Sure, safety measures were in place, several parishes had established a reservation protocol and pews were distinctly marked for social distancing.  

But the underlying question was how many people would actually attend.  

Using the first two weeks of reopening as a small sample size, the results have been encouraging.  

Father Michael Miceli, pastor at St. Patrick Church in Baton Rouge, said he has been pleasantly surprised. Initially, his expectation was about 30 people per Mass but overall attendance has averaged around 70, with some Masses having crowds of 80 to 100. 

“For me, it has exceeded expectations,” Father Miceli said. “We are looking forward to the day when everybody can be back but we are definitely pleased.” 

Father Paul Counce, pastor at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge, admitted he had “no clue as to what to expect” and during that first weekend attendance was about 5% to 7% of the 25% capacity permitted under the state’s reopening guidelines. But the numbers doubled this past weekend, a sign of encouragement for Father Counce.  

“If they continue to double we’ll be up to our maximum 25% capacity for Phase 1 in two or three weeks,” he said.  

St. Jean Vianney Church in Baton Rouge also experienced an increase from the first weekend to the second, albeit a small one, pastor Father Tom Ranzino said. He believes the numbers are “about right for the times.”  

“We have emphasized that folks should be careful and take their time coming back to the physical building,” Father Ranzino said. “I am pleased to see that the community is taking the virus seriously and our precautions to help them come back as well.”  

Away from the metropolitan Baton Rouge area, the results were equally encouraging. At St. Margaret Queen of Scotland Church in Albany, pastor Father Jamin David reported that a combined 350 people attended weekend Masses at St. Margaret and St. Thomas Chapel in Springfield on May 16-17. Father David said the number dipped by about 50 on the second weekend, which was also Memorial Day weekend.  

“Parishioners are excited to simply be back home and are looking forward to more opportunities to resume ministry gatherings and community life around the parish,” Father David said.  

The pastors said those attending Mass are complying with the mask and social distancing requirements. In some parishes, volunteers or staff members are in front of the church checking in those who had made reservations online.  

St. Patrick has even taken it a step further, dividing the church into alphabetized sections and pews numbered by row. Additionally, each person is given a specific seating assignment and escorted to the assigned pew.  

“It seems like being at a nice restaurant, people coming in at the valet line,” Father Miceli mused.  

“I am struck by what a difference the wearing of the masks makes in that I cannot see smiles and that affects my sense of community response,” Father Ranzino said.  “It’s more difficult to hear the praying and singing community. But, even with that, I’m happy folks are beginning to return home.”  

St. Margaret has also employed an online reservation format with Father David reporting the “lion’s share” of the weekend schedule has been filled to capacity under the reduced occupancy rate.  

“In essence if we could accommodate more people on the weekend we would have more people,” he said.  

The parish has added weekend and weekday Masses and is adjusting according to attendance. 

“We knew that there would be some experimentation to find the schedule that fit us,” Father David said. “We’ve since reduced the weekend schedule by one Mass to five, and the (combined) daily schedule from 10 to eight.” 

Moving forward, Father Counce said those considering attending Mass must first, feel safe getting out in public and second, feel that they are getting something out of “live” worship that they were not getting from television or private prayer.  

“I worry that the second may result in a marked decline in church attendance moving forward even after the risk of contagion is practically over,” he said. 

Father Miceli said he is hopeful that perhaps after a month or so and if there is no noticeable outbreak of the coronavirus, people might be more encouraged to attend. 

“I think when they feel comfortable to be here and safe is when they should return,” Father Miceli said. “I think (Bishop Michael G. Duca) has made that perfectly clear. 

“I think the Holy Spirit will let them know when it’s time. We can’t wait to have them back.” 

Father Ranzino stressed the church “has to be patient” and parishioners will return only after they begin to feel safe.  

The clergy members agreed that celebrating Mass in front of a congregation rather than a video camera and empty pews has been uplifting as well as spiritually enriching. Father Counce said celebrating Mass with a congregation is the “paradigmatic way it’s supposed to be done.”  

“Personally it’s been extremely meaningful celebrating Mass with a congregation,” he said. “That’s the way my own personal faith was nourished as a child and young adult, and that’s the way I’ve done since being a priest 40-plus years ago.”  Father Miceli admitted it was “kind of a strange thing” to talk to the camera with nobody in attendance.  

“Twenty-three years (as a priest) and now nobody there; it took some getting used to,” he said.  

Father Ranzino acknowledged live streaming the Mass is a consolation, but “it’s not the celebration of the Eucharist.”