ORLANDO | As cases of COVID-19 decrease and vaccinations increase, bishops across the U.S. are welcoming the faithful back to Church. In reflecting on the Easter readings from the Acts of the Apostles, Bishop John Noonan noted how the Apostles are fortified by reception of the Eucharist. “Most importantly, we come to understand through their own experience the gift of the Eucharist and while they provide for the physical nourishment of the many, the Eucharist becomes the source and summit of their daily living.” That participation sustains and enables them “to be Christ to those whom they meet and seek.”
Considering the bishop’s invitation to physically return to Mass, many parishes are already seeing increased numbers of parishioners filling their pews while still maintaining safety protocols.
Recognizing that “many people are very anxious to come back,” Father Mathew Vettath, parochial administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Apopka, said, “We are assuring a safe and holy space for the faithful.” Masks and hand sanitizer prior to and after Holy Communion are still required. Digital worship aids continue to be available, but daily livestreamed Mass will be phased out by the end of the month. He said it is necessary to “get people back worshipping in community.”
Parish volunteer Mercedes Henry said she is “delighted” everyone is coming back. She returned last July when the parishes reopened after the initial lockdown. She is comfortable with the precautions taken by the parish saying she “never felt unsafe.” To those who are reluctant, she said, “We must always have faith. He (God) is always at our side and will never abandon us.” She added, “He is in control and we must nourish ourselves with His Body and Blood. If we don’t, from where will the strength come to go on?”
Father Martin Nguyen, parochial administrator of St. Paul Parish in Leesburg, agrees. “One of the most important aspects of our faith is the communal dimension,” he said. “Our worship isn’t a ‘me and Jesus’ activity. But as one Church family, we worship God together.” He noted while virtual worship was essential during the lock down, “it can never replace that actual presence and active participation in the Sacred Liturgy.” He worries virtual Mass has become such a convenience that people are choosing it unnecessarily. “God gives us the opportunity to overcome our own fears and anxiety to return to Him – to give thanks for having gotten us through the worst of it, to give fitting worship, and to be nourished by His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.”
He understands there will always be those who are too compromised to physically attend. In addressing this concern, Bishop Noonan said, “If you are health fragile, that is if you are sick or homebound, please call your pastor to let him know of your situation… we want to pray with you and for you. It is also important for you to receive Jesus and we are working to reinstate the ministry to the sick so that you are fortified with the Gift of the Eucharist.”
“I often remind people that God does not oblige us to the impossible. But we do have to answer to Him one day for excuses we make sometimes,” Father Nguyen said. Explaining his community has many elderly parishioners who are vulnerable he noted, “At best, I encourage my people to use their discretion, consult their physicians, and ultimately make a decision that is best for them.” But he added, “It certainly wouldn’t seem to make sense if someone is comfortable going to restaurants, to different social events, and yet are convinced that the Church is the most dangerous place to be. When all is said and done, God can’t make us love Him. God won’t force anyone to return to Him. But as St. Peter said, ‘To whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.’” (Jn. 6:68)
In a recent Facebook post, Holy Redeemer Parish in Kissimmee announced a reduction of livestreamed Masses and Holy Name of Jesus pastor, Father Scott Circe, announced a slow and gradual return to normalcy, hoping Eucharistic Adoration and the rosary will resume physically, rather than virtually, in June. Parishes like St. Matthew in Winter Haven have added more seating to better accommodate crowds and St. James Cathedral in Orlando no longer leaves every other row empty.
Father Ivan Olmo, pastor of Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs, recently posted a video on social media explaining upcoming changes including no more reservations for Mass and the comeback of the Sacrament of Confession utilizing the Confessionals. He’s hopeful holy water will return to the fonts and hymnals will be back in the pews this summer. Both the parish and the school will begin a full year of devotion to the Eucharist beginning June 6th, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body of Blood of Jesus Christ.
“This past year when the church closed and so many of us haven’t been able to come back to church, don’t you miss the Eucharist?” Father Olmo asked. “Don’t you miss that beautiful encounter with the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord? That’s God desire for us, oneness with Him. He sent Jesus so He could unite us to the Father in the Eucharist. That’s where the Father gives us His kiss, the prodigal children return back into the Father’s house.”
Father Nguyen echoes those sentiments. “God is inviting you and me to enter into a relationship with him and with each other – not through a computer or tablet screen, but personally. God didn’t save the world by livestreaming anything. He sent his Son to personally die for us. The Son of God now invites us to love Him a bit more in return.”
Bishop Noonan concluded his letter stating, “You do not need my permission to come to receive Jesus. God chose you to do so! I pray that your desire to draw near to God, to go and bear fruit that will remain, compels you to come to participate physically in the celebration of Mass, to be nourished by the Bread of Heaven to fulfill this appointment.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, May 18, 2021