CHAPTICO, Maryland — About two and one-half months after public Masses were halted due to safety precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, parishioners came home to Mass on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, in a country church that many consider home, Our Lady of the Wayside in Chaptico, in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Celebrating with them was Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, presiding at his first public Mass since the coronavirus shutdown began in mid-March.
“I’m delighted to have my first Mass with you,” said Gregory, who has been celebrating livestreamed Masses since the shutdown.
The archbishop smiled as he addressed the congregation of about 40 people in the white-frame country church with a steeple that on one side has a backdrop of towering pine trees.
Catholic churches in southern Maryland began celebrating Masses the week of May 31 as local leaders began reopening those jurisdictions and easing limits there on the sizes of public gatherings.
In the District of Columbia and nearby Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland — which have been hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak — gatherings as of May 31 were still limited to 10 people or fewer.
A sign posted on the door of the St. Mary’s County church reminded Massgoers to “make sure you have your face mask on, upon entering, please use hand sanitizer (and) keep your distance,” with the last reminder including a safety symbol noting that people should practice social distancing, staying 6 feet apart.
All those in the congregation wore facemasks and maintained a 6-foot distance from one another, except for family groups allowed to sit together. Massgoers also sat in alternate pews, with every other pew roped off.
Before the Mass, Father Michal Sajnog, the pastor, said offering public Mass again meant a lot to him.
“It’s a great consolation. I’ve been looking toward this moment for a long time. It’s good to see them all back,” he told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The day had special meaning for him, too, because early in the COVID-19 crisis, Sajnog, 39, lost his sense of taste and smell, two symptoms of having the coronavirus. He tested positive for it, but he had a mild case of the virus and recovered fully.
During the shutdown, he celebrated daily livestream Masses for his parishioners, so they could remain connected to the Mass and the parish.
Sajnog said the date Our Lady of the Wayside Parish was able to resume public Masses was fitting. Pentecost “was the day the church was established, and today is the first day we reopen.” He called it “a sign of hope” the Lord “chose today to reopen our church.”
The public Mass also was celebrated on a weekend when protests continued to erupt in cities across the country following the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American man, after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest. A now widely circulated video shows Floyd repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” and he appears to lose consciousness or die. He was later declared dead at the hospital.
During the prayers of the faithful, Gregory said, “Let us also pray for peace in our nation, for compassion and understanding, for reconciliation among races, among peoples. Let this nation live out its call to unity and peace.”
Gregory, the first African American Catholic archbishop of Washington, has often spoken out against the evil of racism, and later that day he issued a statement on Floyd’s death. “This incident reveals the virus of racism among us once again even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
“In astonishment, we are seeing the reactions of people across the United States as they express feelings of frustration, hurt and anger in their cry for justice” for Floyd, he said.
“This moment calls us to be the church of hope that Jesus Christ created us to be in a world full of pain and despair. … We pray for a new Pentecost: a renewal of love, justice and truth in our hearts,” Gregory said.
During the Pentecost Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside Church, a prayer also was offered for all those who are suffering from the coronavirus, for their caregivers and for medical workers.
In his homily, Gregory noted how on the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to share the story of Christ with people of many different cultures, who were able to hear them speaking in their own language.
The archbishop said through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the church was established “to be a welcoming place for all peoples and cultures and in all ages. Pentecost is the festival of the church’s diversity and universality.”
“Pentecost,” he added, “is the celebration of the church’s birth and our designation as a community that may be quite diverse in our backgrounds and heritages but always one in our faith and through our worship.”
Gregory also noted Pentecost “asks the church to do far more than simply respect or acknowledge cultural differences.”
“Pentecost is also the challenge that we all accept to become even more perfectly the church that speaks to the heart of humanity in such a way that the miracle of understanding, acceptance and respect occurs anew in each moment of our history and in every land and nation,” he said.
In adhering to the archdiocese’s recommended safety guidelines, no collection was taken up at Our Lady of the Wayside Church. All parishes will be placing baskets or other receptacles near church entrances where people can leave donations, or they can give online.
The Mass also did not include words inviting people to share the sign of peace, and during Communion, people lined up single file at a social distance, and received the Eucharist in their hands. Hymnals were removed from the pews, and parish bulletins were not handed out.
Before Mass, Renee and Windell Price reflected on what it means to finally return to the country church.
“It is just everything to me. … It’s home,” Renee, who was a lector at the Pentecost Mass, told the Catholic Standard.
The parish “helps me keep my faith. … It’s great to come back, that I can get Communion (again),” said Windell.
Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.