Parishioners adjust to Mass without masks or distancing

NORTH READING -- After a year of wearing masks, social distancing, and following a long list of other protocols, many parishes are beginning to look a little more like they did before the coronavirus pandemic. Starting with Masses of the weekend of May 29-30, at the discretion of pastors, masks could be taken off and parishioners could sit close to each other and sing once again.

The archdiocese issued new guidelines for Masses and other areas of parish ministry following Gov. Charlie Baker's decision to lift most pandemic-related restrictions on May 29. People who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus are no longer required to wear masks or socially distance in parishes. The archdiocese suggested that parishes might designate sections of churches for people who wish to continue wearing masks and maintaining a distance from people outside their household. Pastors are not expected to ask people whether they have been vaccinated.

Other changes can be seen in the liturgy. Congregational singing and choirs are allowed, and missalettes and hymnals may once again be used and kept in pews. Altar servers and liturgical ministers may again assist in the liturgy. And, although Communion under both species is still not allowed at this time, Mass attendees may receive the Eucharist on the tongue, though ministers are to sanitize their hands after administering it in this manner.

At St. Theresa Church in North Reading on Sunday, May 30, signs indicated rules for different sections of the building. Masks and social distancing were required for people sitting on the left side, where the pews still had tape blocking off every other row. On the right side, people could go without masks and sit in any pew. Roughly even numbers of parishioners chose each option.

In the parish's bulletin for that weekend, the pastor, Bishop Mark O'Connell, asked that people "be mindful that everyone is at a different place when it comes to COVID vaccinations for many different reasons." Some, he noted, cannot receive the vaccination for health reasons, and some who were vaccinated earlier than others may be worried about vulnerability now.

"During this time of transition, we ask you for your patience and to refrain from judging those who continue to wear masks or who may not shake hands during the sign of peace. Let us love one another by our kindness and acceptance of each other whatever their reasons or status," he said.

In a June 1 email to The Pilot, Bishop O'Connell said that people were "happy" with the new rules, though some were worried about people ahead of them receiving Communion on the tongue.

"We reassured them that very few did this and we sanitized after each one and that seemed to be fine with them," he said.

St. Theresa's parishioner Kathi Lee has been attending daily Mass ever since it was allowed to resume. She said she feels "completely safe" in the church.

"I felt safe the entire time. I never worried one bit," she said after the Sunday morning Mass.

She said that during the pandemic, the parish priests allowed her to come after Mass so she could receive Communion on the tongue.

"I felt it was a great blessing, and I was very thankful to God for that. And coming back now I think it's wonderful and I think they did a fantastic job of how they set it up," Lee said.

Another parishioner, Louise Groton, said she contracted the coronavirus early in the pandemic and did not return to Mass until the fall of 2020.

"The first week I came, I have to say, I was a little hesitant, but I stayed. And then, after that, I felt really at ease. I just trusted in God," she said.

Groton said she has felt comfortable ever since she returned because of how the church was set up for social distancing. When it was possible to take off her mask, she felt hesitant again.

"But I thought, if I don't do it in this instant, I won't. And that was the same way with coming back to church. It was one of those things that the longer you put it off, the more fear comes in," she said.

Attending Mass on May 30, Groton said, "I felt free, in a way, because the singing came back, the young kids are coming back, the parish is becoming alive again, and that's nice to see."