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Church capacity increases, but in some parishes Mass attendance still low

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The Diocese of Arlington announced that as of July 1, all 70 parishes are able, but not mandated, to celebrate public Mass with capacity restrictions lifted. This is consistent with Phase 3 of “Forward Virginia,” Gov. Ralph Northam’s phased approach for easing public health restrictions associated with slowing the spread of COVID-19.


“The latest sector guidelines from the commonwealth provide revised directions for Phase 3 regarding houses of worship, (including) the lifting of the 50 percent capacity restriction, although social distancing must be maintained, and the restriction on ‘passing items,’ such as an offertory basket,” said Ward Jones, diocesan chief operations officer. “Because attendance is likely to go up, (Bishop Michael F. Burbidge) has authorized the use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion if a pastor in his discretion desires to use them.”


Parishioners 10 years old and older still are expected to wear face coverings in accordance with Gov. Northam’s executive order 63, which allows exceptions for health reasons and specific religious rituals. According to diocesan guidelines, during Mass a priest may determine his own use of a face covering.


Bishop Burbidge is continuing the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation until further notice. Those who are 65 years old or older, as well as those with underlying health conditions, are encouraged to avoid gatherings of the general public, including public liturgies.


Though capacity restriction are lifted, in reality, social distancing guidelines as well as people’s reticence to attend large public gatherings such as Mass are keeping attendance low in many churches. The capacity at Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria is 850 people, and the largest Mass attendance the parish has had so far was 240, said Father Thomas P. Ferguson, pastor. “We have not had any sign-ups and six weeks into having Mass, we still haven't ever reached capacity in terms of social distancing,” he said.


As Masses get closer to 400 attendees, Father Ferguson anticipates setting up an overflow room in the parish hall with a livestream of the Mass. “We still have a ways to go until we get to that point,” he said.


Likewise, the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, which has a capacity of 1,200, hasn’t come close to reaching half capacity or pre-pandemic numbers. “Normally, we get 1,500 for a weekend, and last Sunday we had 470 people (at four Masses),” said Father Patrick L. Posey, rector.


Parishioners at the cathedral and Good Shepherd have tuned in to their livestreamed parish Masses, and both pastors plan to continue the online ministry. “Since the pandemic started, we’ve installed a camera in our church so that we’ll have the potential in perpetuity to be livestreaming Sunday Mass, daily Mass, weddings and funerals,” said Father Ferguson. “It’s a way to provide for people who in this time, hopefully temporarily, cannot visit church (and) the people who were already homebound. This is another way of being connected to the community.”


The staff at the cathedral has tried to provide a safe worship environment for those who do want to attend Mass and to find ways to connect with those who are still at home, said Christine Kurtzke Hughes, director for advancement at the cathedral.


“What struck me through all of this is the two things people really missed were receiving the Eucharist, that physical connection, and they wanted to hear from their priests,” she said. “When we looked at the livestreaming and (other online messages from the clergy), we had so many hits on that. Hearing from their priests in a seemingly intimate yet virtual reality is powerful. I think it’s important we utilize that tool to really go into the home and become more a part of their daily lives.”

This article is an updated version of a previously published article. Read it here


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020