Parishes grapple with celebrating Christmas during the COVID season

Parishes grapple with celebrating Christmas during the COVID season

Health guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and a hand-sanitizer dispenser are seen near an entrance to Immaculate Conception Church in Jamaica Estates, N.Y., Nov. 22, 2020. (Credit: Gregory A. Shemitz/AP.)

Father Thomas Doyle of Good Shepherd Church in Brooklyn wants parishioners to get an authentic Christmas Mass.

NEW YORK — Father Thomas Doyle of Good Shepherd Church in Brooklyn wants parishioners to get an authentic Christmas Mass. He still remembers losing Easter to COVID-19, and throwing away rotten palms after Palm Sunday was canceled.

“We will create the best we can, an atmosphere that we are celebrating Christmas. (Parishioners) will see wreaths on the doors, smell the pine from the wreaths, see the poinsettias, see the lit trees,” Doyle told Crux. “We’ll do the best we can to try and keep Christmas, Christmas.”

But an authentic experience doesn’t mean it’ll look the same as a typical year. Good Shepard Church, like parishes around the country, is still figuring out what’s possible for Christmas services to keep everyone safe and follow diocesan and state guidelines.

Some churches have canceled holiday festivities or are holding them virtually. Others have done away with Midnight Mass, and many are resorting to a ticket system to make sure there’s a safe amount of people at the church.

Good Shepard Church is still debating whether or not to go the route of a ticket system. It has added a mid-afternoon third Mass on Christmas Eve to try and disperse the large number of people expected on the day.

The church can hold 400 people – less than 50 percent capacity – under current guidelines. So far, that hasn’t been a problem.

“People are looking for the opportunity to come celebrate, however, on the other side of that they’re also concerned about their health,” Doyle said. “That’s why we do a livestreaming of the Mass and that’s also a possibility for Christmas.”

Father Patrick West at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Queens won’t change the Christmas Mass schedule from last year but said he would rather parishioners livestream the Mass from home, so they stay safe.

“The health issue outweighs everything else. If Christmas goes by the board like everything else so be it as long as everyone’s healthy. There’s going to be Christmas again next year,” West told Crux. “My concern is people’s health. I know their spiritual life is my primary concern but them being here to develop that spiritual life is a priority too.”

Father Michael Holleran of the Church of Notre Dame in New York has already canceled Midnight Mass to try and prevent a large crowd. He, too, said many parishioners stay home every week but he would expect a full house to show up on Christmas Eve.

So instead of the church’s usual tri-lingual Mass and concert celebration, the parish will operate a close-to-normal Mass schedule for Christmas. There will be a vigil Mass Saturday night, and English, French and Spanish Masses on Christmas day.

In the meantime, Holleran will continue to spread messages of hope through the Advent season leading up to Christmas. He’s trying to keep spirits high within the church by letting people know they can come out better on the other side of the pandemic.

“My homily (Sunday) was about the Lord bringing hope and comfort through a time that is dark in more ways than one,” Holleran told Crux. “He’s teaching us something, not just to go back to normal but to be more alive, awake, responsive and sensitive to the crisis’ around the world.”

West and Doyle have given their parishioners similar messages of hope.

It’s a message of “the suns going to shine again, it’s going to be OK,” West said.

Doyle likened his hope for the end of the pandemic to the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 tragedy – a time where he saw more people back at church.

“The next day a lot more people came to the church, a lot more people were friendlier towards one another, and that’s what I hope. When we do come back I hope there will be a different change for people,” Doyle said.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

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