Parishes across the diocese prepare to celebrate Christmas in pandemic year

Father Andru O’Brien, parochial vicar for St. Jude Parish in Peoria, celebrates an evening Mass in the church parking lot last month. St. Jude is among the parishes in the Diocese of Peoria planning parking lot Masses or Communion services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as one option to celebrate Jesus’ birth as a parish community while also keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo/Daryl Wilson)

Christmas has always been a time of joy and reverence as we welcome the Christ Child into our lives again. If parishes around the Diocese of Peoria have their way, that will continue to be the case — with more than a little creativity thrown in for good measure.

“Even though there’s craziness going on all around us, there’s hope, there’s hope,” said Msgr. Thomas Mack, pastor of faith communities in Monmouth, Raritan and Alexis. “Jesus conquers all things. No matter how bad it seems, he’s still in charge. We just keep our eyes fixed on him.”

When people dwell on the things they can’t do, it will lead them down a “rabbit hole” they can’t escape. That’s not what we’re supposed to be about as children of God, Msgr. Mack said.

Advent is all about hope, he told The Catholic Post.

“I have a hard time telling someone they can’t come in. I think that’s what they told St. Joseph at the inn.” — Msgr. Thomas Mack, pastor of parishes in Monmouth, Raritan and Alexis

“We have to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and say, ‘Wait a minute. John the Baptist is telling me I’ve got to get myself ready, so let’s get ourselves ready,’” he said. “Rocky Road is a good flavor for ice cream, but that’s not the way you want your spiritual life. We’ve got to get those rough edges smoothed out.”

While many parishes in the Diocese of Peoria are not having communal penance services during Advent, Msgr. Mack said they’re working on a socially distanced service at Immaculate Conception in Monmouth. Since they can’t use the confessionals because they’re too small, they will keep priests and penitents safely spread out in the priests’ sacristy, the servers’ sacristy, and the front entrance of church, which will be blocked off.

“We’re just going to try it and see what happens,” he said.

Eight Masses will be offered between the three parishes and the three Masses on Christmas Eve will be livestreamed, with one in Spanish and two in English. When all the available spaces at St. Patrick in Raritan are taken, people will be invited to watch Mass from the community center.

“I have a hard time telling someone they can’t come in. I think that’s what they told St. Joseph at the inn,” Msgr. Mack said, referring to Luke’s Gospel. “People here are pretty good about taking care of themselves and their neighbors. We’ll just have to trust everybody’s good sense.”

A WARM WELCOME

Other parishes, like St. Pius X in Rock Island, are using a reservation system to welcome as many people as is safe, all with an eye on “extreme hospitality,” according to Barbara Roedel, liturgy coordinator.

“We’ve got our whole church marked for social distancing and the ushers are trained to help seat people,” she said. If people haven’t registered in advance they will be invited to watch the Mass in McCarthy Hall, where it will be livestreamed.

That livestreaming also provides an option for people who prefer, for whatever reason, not to come into church at this time. They can remain at home and still be part of the celebration, she said.

“I think part of it this year is the gratefulness that we are going to be able to come to church and celebrate Christmas in our church as a faith community. I missed that at Easter and I know a lot of people did.” — Barbara Roedel, liturgy coordinator, St. Pius X, Rock Island

“I think part of that this year is the gratefulness that we are going to be able to come to church and celebrate Christmas in our church as a faith community. I missed that at Easter and I know a lot of people did,” Roedel said, recalling how public Masses were suspended in the early days of the pandemic. “It’s good to come together at Christmas and worship.”

To keep people from congregating after Mass for family photos and visiting, Christ the King Parish in Moline will have locations set up on the church patio with a Christmas tree, the Nativity scene and “all sorts of decorations” so people can gather there safely, said Father Donald Levitt, pastor.

Another way he is fostering community is by asking families to write their names on long slips of paper that will be made into a chain and hung in church.

“That way the families will be represented even if they can’t be there,” Father Levitt said. “They’ve sent part of the chain and they’re still linked, so to speak, to the parish.”

PARKING LOT MASSES

At St. Mark in Peoria and St. Matthew in Champaign, parking lot Masses have become popular. This allows dozens of people to come together for Mass, while remaining socially distanced in their cars.

“At first this was our only alternative, before we started inviting people back into the church building,” said Chris Kreps, director of administrative services at St. Matthew Parish. “We’re blessed to have a fairly large parking lot here, so it made sense for us.”

Msgr. Stanley Deptula, pastor, made the decision to keep the parking lot Masses when the suspension of public Masses was lifted in June because it was the only way some people with compromised immune systems could be present. Kreps said they entrusted the weather to the Blessed Mother and “she has delivered every single week.”

Christ the King Parish in Moline is asking families to write their names on long slips of paper that will be made into a chain and hung in church.“That way the families will be represented even if they can’t be there,” said Father Donald Levitt, pastor.

A stage with a portable canopy and a small radio transmitter make it possible for everyone to see and hear what’s going on.

These Masses will be available at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 8 a.m. on Christmas Day.

Other Christmas Masses will be offered inside church and livestreamed on the parish’s YouTube channel, as will a service of Lessons and Carols at 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Since choral singing is still not permitted under current COVID-19 protocols, music will be provided by Loretta Oakley, liturgy coordinator and music director, and include recordings made by the choir in previous years.

At St. Mark Parish, the 2 p.m. parking lot Mass has become the most popular Mass each weekend, so it was added to the Christmas Eve schedule, according to Msgr. Brian Brownsey, pastor. He said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, offered a dispensation for earlier Masses this year so parishes could make use of the daylight.

Reservations are required for this and all Masses at St. Mark and the inside and outside of the church will be decorated in a festive way for the celebrations. Masses will also be livestreamed on the Facebook page for St. Mark School.

Msgr. Brownsey said that at the parish council’s suggestion, parish families who register for it may have Communion brought to their homes after the Christmas Masses.

A variation on Masses offered in the parking lot is people who drive to church and watch Mass on a device in their cars or drive over after watching the livestream at home, said Father David Richardson, pastor of St. Philomena Church in Peoria. He brings Communion out to the people in as many as 50 cars after Mass.

That will continue on Christmas Eve with Masses at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., and at 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Christmas Day.

“The reality is a lot of people feel more comfortable with it,” he told The Post. “I’ve found it to be fairly reverent. . . . People are appreciative and thankful and feel like they’re participating and connected with the church and with the Eucharist and the sacraments.”

AND DON’T FORGET . . .

Msgr. Brownsey said even before the pandemic made it difficult to gather in church, he was encouraging people to reclaim the devotions that can be done at home. That includes reading the prayers of blessing for a Christmas tree and manger scene or lighting candles on the family Advent wreath.

“While you might not be able to come to church, there are so many beautiful traditions for your home that you’ve never done before and now there’s a reason to do them,” he said. “The most basic element of the church is the family home — it’s not the church building, it’s the family home.”

Father Geoffrey Horton, administrator at St. Patrick in Wapella and chaplain at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, said Mass is a different story.

“I want to encourage people, even if we’re dispensed, to come to Mass if they can,” he said. “When the dispensation (from attending public Masses) is gone, I don’t want people thinking, ‘We can stay at home and get just as much out of it.’ It’s not the same.”

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