Father Jeffrey Kegley, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, serves the Eucharist to a parishioner during the first in-car Mass on May 18. Courtesy photo
Father Jeffrey Kegley, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, serves the Eucharist to a parishioner during the first in-car Mass on May 18. Courtesy photo
" They have been longing for this moment, to be able to receive the Body of Christ again. "

John Vasturia was one of the first to attend the in-car Masses allowed in the Diocese of Trenton as of May 18.

“Celebrating today together, in our cars and in the parish parking lot reinforced the resilience of the parish community and the power of our Catholic faith,” said Vasturia, who attended the 9 a.m. in-car Mass celebrated on the grounds of St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford. “We were able to see fellow parishioners and acknowledge together that our Lord is stronger than any earthly setback.”

Photo Gallery: In-car Masses begin around Diocese

John Hendrick of Nativity Parish, agreed, reflecting on the number of fellow parishioners who attended Mass in the Fair Haven church parking lot.

“Most of all, to receive the Eucharist was very special, as I have hungered for it. I always feel a heightened state of grace when I receive it,” he said.

Part of a Plan

The outdoor, in-car Masses are part of a multiphase plan for parishes in the Diocese to reopen. Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., 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, Bishop O’Connell and parish priests across the Diocese have made it their mission to reach the faithful through livestreamed Masses and various technology such as podcasts, social media, YouTube and more.

On May 8, Bishop O’Connell announced that all churches in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties could begin to reopen May 13 for private prayer only. Social distancing and other safety measures are implemented, and churches can reopen only once pastors determine they can safely do so.

On May 15, the Bishop issued a statement in which he approved a set of directives giving permission for outdoor in-car Masses according to good pastoral judgement of parish pastors beginning May 18. The announcement followed N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 142, stipulating that car gatherings for a number of purposes, including religious services, do not violate the state’s ban on gatherings.

Dr. Joanne Swift Hummel went to the first in-car Mass at St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, where her brother serves as pastor.

“The opportunity to attend Mass in person and the ability to receive Holy Communion at last were my reasons for being there today,” Swift Hummel said. “The fact that it was outdoors, and I was in my car, were barely noticeable inconveniences.

“I was more emotional than I expected to be during the Mass; it brought tears several times, especially as I witnessed my brother’s emotions at the beginning of the Mass,” she said of Father Daniel Swift, pastor. “This pandemic has been a very stressful experience for all of us, and the inability to attend Mass and receive the Sacraments has been especially difficult.”

Ken Arko of Nativity Parish fully understands the safety precautions being taken and that they take precedence, but he was happy to return to Mass – even in the parking lot.

“We are called by Jesus to be in communion, so the in-car Mass was a way that was possible to be in communion with my parish,” he said.

With Their People

Like their parishioners, pastors were heartened to see their community members in person – although they were in their cars – and celebrate the Eucharist in their presence.

For Father Jeffrey Kegley, May 18 was an emotionally charged day. Along with observing the 24th anniversary of his priestly ordination, the date also saw him celebrating Mass with more than 350 parishioners on the grounds of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, where he is pastor.

“There was amazing joy among the parishioners, who were blowing their car horns in appreciation of being able to celebrate Mass together,” said Father Kegley. He shared that as he looked out on the parishioners, he noticed those who had lost loved ones to the coronavirus, people who had recovered and health care workers who are on the front lines.

“The faith of the people of God is amazing,” he said, noting how compelling it was to see parishioners receive the Eucharist, many of whom were moved to tears.

“They have been longing for this moment, to be able to receive the Body of Christ again,” he said. Adding to the emotional day: being reminded of how he had been “ordained to serve the people and to be with them celebrating Holy Mass.”

Father Jim Grogan, pastor in Nativity Parish, reflected on the months of “stark changes” – from celebrating Masses without a congregation to looking out over a sea of vehicles. While he was thrilled to see 35 cars in the parking lot for Mass, he said he was equally pleased to see on his computer the more than 270 views indicated of people watching the Mass, which was livestreamed.

It was a reminder that “as a priest, I need to be present to both congregations, those in front of me in their cars and those dispersed in their homes,” he said.

He chuckled when he mentioned feeling “like a little kid getting ready for Christmas” when we learned that in-car Masses would be allowed.

“My excitement held the foundation that we were gradually beginning to reconnect in person,” he said. “[It] was such a privilege to distribute the Living Bread to these faithful parishioners.”

In Medford, a big smile crossed Father Swift’s face when it was time to exchange the Sign of Peace.

“Let’s all beep our horns as a sign of peace,” he recalled saying, as the sound of horns from 65 cars immediately began to blare.

“Today [May 18] was an historic day in the life of St. Mary of the Lakes,” he said. “It showed how many have a devotion to the Eucharist.”