Ron Maniglia, an usher and reader in Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, hands out bulletins to parishioners following the 9 a.m. Mass June 6. Items such as bulletins, missalettes and hymnals have not been available in more than a year due to pandemic restrictions. Mary Stadnyk photo
Ron Maniglia, an usher and reader in Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, hands out bulletins to parishioners following the 9 a.m. Mass June 6. Items such as bulletins, missalettes and hymnals have not been available in more than a year due to pandemic restrictions. Mary Stadnyk photo
Fist bumps, elbow taps, air waves and air hugs were replaced with firm, genuine handshakes at the Sign of Peace. Missalettes and hymnals were in the pew racks, ready for use by folks to follow along as the Readings were being proclaimed and to sing the actual words to hymns. Printed copies of bulletins and handouts announcing upcoming events were distributed and the various measures churches used to ensure proper pandemic protocols – like duct tape to bracket off pews and the strategically placed floor markers at six feet apart – were pretty much gone.

These were but a few of the changes people noticed when they stepped into their parish churches for Mass June 5-6, the weekend designated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and the Catholic bishops of New Jersey to lift the 15-month long dispensation from attending Mass. In lifting the dispensation set into place March 12, 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, faithful are now required to return to church to fulfill their Sunday Holy Day of Obligation.

Following the noon Mass on June 6, Father Dennis Apoldite, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Trenton, described a “good response” of parishioners in attendance in both Holy Cross Church and Sacred Heart Church.

“We had a few new faces,” he said, noting that he’s observed a steady population of about 40 percent of parishioners at Mass during the past five months.

“There was a very joyful and excited spirit as people began to return to church,” observed Msgr. Vincent Gartland, a retired priest of the Diocese and a weekend assistant in St. George Church, Titusville.

“The parishioners were happy to see and greet one another again. The atmosphere was definitely electric, and there was also a sense of gratitude to be back in church,” he said.

Getting Ready

Once Bishop O’Connell announced that the dispensation would be lifted, parish staff members quickly mobilized to get their churches ready for the return of their parishioners.

To help address any lingering concerns, parishes made provisions for folks wanting to continue practicing safety measures.

“Last week I told the parishioners that I didn’t want to lose anyone” because they were concerned about returning to church, said Father Apoldite. So in both worship sites the decision was made to designate half of the church for open seating, meaning people could sit where they want and didn’t have to wear face masks, and the other half had safety measures in place – taped off pews and parishioners could decide whether or not they wanted to wear masks.

“About 90 percent of the parishioners were in the open seating” during the June 5-6 weekend, he said. “We’ll do this until Labor Day and see how it goes.”

Similarly, Msgr. Gartland said that there are ample supplies of hand sanitizing stations throughout St. George Church as well as areas where there is plenty of space between the pews, and “some people took advantage of this provision.”

No Coincidence

When asked about the timing of the return to Mass in the Diocese falling on the same weekend that the Universal Church commemorated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Yolanda Gora of Sacred Heart Parish, emphatically responded that “It’s a sign from God …

“I see it as a sign of hope that everything will get better,” said Gora, who had attended the noon Mass that was celebrated in Polish in Holy Cross Church. After the Mass she joined in the annual Corpus Christi feast day procession that followed. 

While watching Father Apoldite carry the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament, and the stream of parishioners singing and praying as the procession traveled to the three altars set up around the church grounds, Gora found it uplifting.

“It was sad this past year having less people in church, but today it’s very nice to see people here,” she said, then noted that she was especially pleased that at least 12 more parishioners offered to help with setting up for the procession.

“I think they feel more comfortable coming out and helping, and they are also more comfortable having their children get involved with activities,” she said.

Msgr. Gartland said he found the solemnity to be the “perfect day to begin our exciting journey in the post-COVID Church.

“For so many folks, being able to receive the Eucharist in community again was something that they had missed and had longed for throughout the pandemic, so joining with the community to celebrate the Eucharist, the central act of our faith, was a long-awaited event,” he said. “Their joy was evident.”

Acknowledging that the COVID crisis presented a real challenge to the faithful’s being able to celebrate the Eucharist, Msgr. Gartland added that by its very nature, Mass is a participatory event reflecting the diversity of gifts of the worshiping community and calling for the full and active participation of all.

“A liturgy in which all or most of the ministerial roles are taken by the priest makes visible a Church in which the priest has all the responsibility, a lopsided Church, that can easily become stagnant,” he said. “This is not only misleading, but contrary to the teaching of the Church, for all the baptized form the Body of Christ.

“The body has many members all with different and varied functions and is most healthy when all the members are working well together,” he said. “We are now freely moving in that direction. When you are not there, you are missed.”