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Smiles are spotted at area churches after pandemic restrictions are lifted

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Jim and Judy Jagielski have attended in-person Mass just three times since the start of the pandemic. But for Judy’s birthday, the couple wanted to go to Sunday Mass. Afterward, their maskless faces beamed as they chatted with their pastor, Father Robert C. Cilinski, at Church of the Nativity in Burke, their parish for more than 30 years. Jim loved seeing all the friendly faces. Judy said it felt like coming home. “It’s just good to be back,” she said.  

Many Arlington diocesan Catholics saw the smiling faces of their fellow parishioners during Memorial Day weekend Masses. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge gave pastors permission to remove most of the pandemic restrictions May 28, including social distancing and mask wearing. His May 25 announcement came after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued new guidelines that went into effect the same day. 

Additionally, Bishop Burbidge and other bishops of the region announced June 2 that they are lifting the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass beginning June 26-27. 

Going forward, all parishes are encouraged to return to the pre-COVID-19 schedules for Masses, adoration and access to the parish. Now there is no occupancy limit on Masses and no social distancing. During the liturgy, there can be full choirs, holy water in the fonts, a procession, an offertory collection and the sign of peace between members of the same household. Only the consecrated host will be offered during Communion. 

Fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear a face mask in church. Unvaccinated individuals are encouraged to continue wearing a face mask, though priests will not ask parishioners about their vaccination status or stop unmasked people from entering the church. 

Some parishes opted not to loosen restrictions yet, or to gradually phase them in. “Due to the recent COVID cases on campus, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church will maintain social distancing and mask requirements for the next two weeks,” the Winchester parish posted on Facebook. Previously, the parish announced its pastor, Father Bjorn C. Lundberg, and parochial vicar, Father Stephen Holmes, have COVID-19. 

St. John Neumann Church in Reston implemented some of the changes over Memorial Day weekend but plans to incorporate more the following weekend, including ending Mass pre-registration and opening all the pews. 

Before the restrictions were lifted, Nativity was encouraging in-person Mass attendance by sharing on social media the stories of parishioners who have returned to Mass. “It's not the same participating over livestream,” said Mary Castellano, Nativity social media coordinator. “To be able to consume Our Lord, the source and summit of our faith, to be in community sitting among the faithful, there is no substitute for that.”

A boy dips his hand in the holy water font as he leaves Mass. ZOEY MARAIST | CATHOLIC HERALD

restrictions 79While Castellano hopes parishioners return to church soon, she wanted the tone of the social media messages to be inviting, not judgmental. “This is still a very challenging time and we wanted to be mindful of that and walk with people, rather than wave our finger at them and tell them what to do,” she said. 

Many Nativity parishioners feel comfortable coming to Mass, as the pews were nearly all full at the parish's popular 11 a.m. Mass May 30. Attendees dipped their fingers in the holy water as they entered and picked up hymnals to join the choir in singing the hymns. About half were masked. The collection baskets stayed in the narthex and there was no presentation of the gifts by the faithful.

At the start of Mass, Father Cilinksi thanked the Massgoers for their presence and perseverance. “Thank you everyone for all the sacrifices you’ve made the past 14 months in abiding by all the safety guidelines here at Nativity,” he said. “It was 100 percent participation and everyone really showed great love of neighbor and care for each other. I was very proud of all of us as we did this safely.”

At the end of Mass, many people gathered outside the church to greet one another. Several embraced. Longtime parishioner Pat Connell, who returned to in-person Masses around Easter, said she loved seeing the pews without ropes. As she’s fully vaccinated, she chose not to wear a mask. “It’s a relief that for the first time you can come to church without a mask,” she said. “It was wonderful.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021