Holy Cross, Rumson, parishioners attend morning Mass June 8, which marked the return to in-church Masses since March. Rich Hundley photo
Holy Cross, Rumson, parishioners attend morning Mass June 8, which marked the return to in-church Masses since March. Rich Hundley photo
Faithful across the Diocese of Trenton were tearfully grateful to once again receive the Eucharist at Mass after nearly three months away from their parish pews.

“I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams thought we would have a pandemic that would cause everything to crash for all these weeks,” said Barbara Carton-Riker, a daily Mass-goer of Holy Cross Parish, Rumson, for 35 years.

Carton-Riker was among the thousands of Diocese’s Catholics who returned to in-church Masses the week of June 8 and weekend of June 13-14, as approved by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

“It was wonderful that there were online Masses and parking lot Masses, but it was really nice to get back into church,” Carton-Riker said.

Sacred Return

The outdoor, in-car Masses were part of a multiphase plan for parishes in the Diocese to reopen. Bishop O’Connell suspended public Masses in late March, which was soon followed by the closing of churches for private prayer over COVID-19 concerns. Since that time, livestreamed Masses and various technology such as podcasts, social media, YouTube and more have been utilized by both the Bishop and parish priests.

Reopening has progressed in careful steps with input from the Post-Pandemic Parish Task Force of Pastors established by Bishop O’Connell. Churches began to reopen May 13 for private prayer only, with social distancing and other safety measures in place.

In-car Masses were allowed beginning May 18, according to good pastoral judgement. The Diocese consulted with public health officials throughout the entire process.

Kevin McConnell, an active member of Our Lady Queen of Peace, describes his involvement and service in the Hainesport parish as “my passion.”

“Everyone has things in their lives to do,” he said, “but I try to go to Mass every day. I just really enjoy it. When you are used to receiving the Body and Blood of Christ every day and are shut out, it is frustrating.”

The beginning of the lockdown was the most difficult for parishioners, he said, because their pastor, Father Joe Noche, was unable to return from a visit to his native Philippines for a month and a half. “Watching Mass on television when Father was away was nice. But when Father got back, and we had livestreaming … it was familiar. Now that we can attend daily Mass, it is awesome,” said McConnell, who attended in-church Mass June 10.

Said, Carton-Riker, “The most important thing was being able to receive the Eucharist again.” The second – to reunite with a group of Red Bank Catholic alumni from the class of 1951 who have attended Mass together on weekdays for years.

“I love the Mass, the community … being in church again,” she said.

Maricarmen Buckley made it her mission to view livestream Mass every day from Holy Cross Church once the pastor, Father Michael Manning, had it up and running. “I was thankful and happy to have a Mass every day. It was solidarity. … It was peaceful and nice to be able to have the presence of God.”

But Buckley did miss the Eucharist and says having the church closed was upsetting. “I understand why it was necessary,” she said. “But I am so happy to be back.”

Signs of The Time

Father Noche and Father Manning have the distinction of being priests and physicians who bring scientific and spiritual gifts in these times of coronavirus. Both focused on keeping their parishioners engaged by way of technology and personal outreach.

Father Manning said that, as a priest, he found that the inability to distribute the Eucharist to his parishioners “struck a grievous blow. It felt very strange to be saying daily Mass alone,” he said. “Having to close the doors of the church even for private prayer was another blow to priestly hospitality.”

But Father Manning kept in close touch with his parishioners by way of virtual technology and ran one poll during the closure in which they could voice their concerns.

The survey, he said, was helpful in planning for likely Mass attendance, especially in the parking lot Masses.

“We also heard from parishioners in the chat room during Mass, the parish email and the phones, when staffed,” he said. “Quickly becoming informed about the technology with which to reach out to parishioners so that Mass could be heard, whether online or in parked cars, became very important.”

Daily Mass was livestreamed in Our Lady Queen of Peace as soon as Father Noche was able to return, and those who have attended the first daily Masses in church have found things running smoothly and according to the Bishop’s pastoral directive, he said.

Among them, limited admittance, no holy water in which to dip their fingers, nor will there be an exchange of peace among parishioners or a chalice with the Blood of Christ from which to drink. Six feet of separation between parishioners adheres to social distancing regulations.

He understands that some parishioners may be concerned about stepping inside church even with limited admittance and other precautions. He is planning to accommodate those concerns by continuing the livestream according to the Bishop’s instructions and holding the Saturday vigil Mass inside on Saturday and Sunday Mass outside in the parking lot.

“It’s important to go to church,” he said. “At the same time, it is a scary time, and we have to be cautious.”