Parishioners across East Tennessee return to first public Masses since March; COVID rules still being observed
By Bill Brewer
The feast of Pentecost saw a return to normal … well, a “new normal” for the Diocese of Knoxville as Masses were open to the public for the first time in more than two months and parishioners across the diocese began returning to churches to worship.
Parishes welcomed their members beginning with Pentecost vigil Masses on May 30 and continuing with services on Pentecost Sunday, May 31. However, churches were still bound by a COVID-19 protocol, including social distancing, wearing of protective masks, reduced capacity at Masses, the liberal use of hand sanitizer, maintaining social distancing at the sign of peace, receiving the Eucharist in the hand only, and orderly dismissal from Mass, with no gathering by individuals after Mass.
Parishioners took the restrictions in stride, understanding that the coronavirus outbreak still is a public health concern, with new cases continuing to be reported in East Tennessee communities.
Those in attendance said they were glad to be back in the presence of Jesus. Since public Masses were suspended March 20, thousands of Catholics throughout the diocese have been watching Masses via livestreaming on Internet channels, with only priests, deacons, and altar servers present.
Spiritual Communion has been their source and summit of Christian life in the absence of the holy Eucharist.
In one of the first acts of public worship since March 20, Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated the vigil Mass for Pentecost at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, where he welcomed new Catholics entering the Church through baptism and confirmation. Most all of those new Catholics, who are members of Sacred Heart Parish, entered the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
The bishop began Mass with a lighthearted comment, saying he intended to use the Pentecost Mass to catch up on more than two months of homilies.
“I’m going to start with Lent, and we’re going to go through Easter and the weeks of Easter, and we might throw an Ascension in there somewhere. What do you think? Wouldn’t that be fun?” he joked, drawing laughs from Catholics who were looking forward to receiving Communion for the first time since winter.
Bishop Stika then turned serious in welcoming back Sacred Heart’s parishioners after such a long, historic shutdown of the nation’s small businesses, large companies, government offices, organizations, social outlets, schools, and churches to slow the spread of the dangerous virus.
“It’s so good to be able to see people in church,” he said. “I’ve been praying a lot about what has happened over the last couple of months. Do you remember what February was like, looking forward to celebrating Lent and what you were going to ‘give up’? And looking forward to spring and spring vacations. You never thought you would be stuck with your spouse or your kids day in and day out, month after month. It’s really been something. It’s so nice to see you.”
Bishop Stika noted how the virus is real, yet the public can’t see it or even know who has it, had it, or hasn’t contracted it. But it is insidious in its silent, indiscriminate attack.
“So many people have longed to gather together with other people just to have the ability to pray in a community, not at home sitting on their couches,” he said, remarking on the challenges Jesus and his disciples overcame, including evil, to build the early Church. Those apostles persisted and succeeded, assisted by followers of Christ through the centuries who have moved the Church forward. Time and again they have triumphed over obstacles, including pandemics. They preached in different languages while also preaching through charity, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, reverence, and care for another person.
“And now we’re here today. It is a great joy for me this day, as we begin public Masses, to celebrate with those who wish to join with us in our family,” the bishop said, telling the catechumens and candidates that “your work is to live your faith so that others might see what you believe in, what you acknowledge, and what you live.”
“You might be wearing a facemask today, but you won’t ever have a sign on you that says ‘I am a Christian. I am a Catholic.’ You can hide your faith, but that isn’t what faith is about. Faith is to be shared and lived. It’s a lived experience. I know that we will survive this virus. I also know that evil is present in the world. All you have to do is turn on the news about what happened in Minnesota and the riots. The anger,” he added.
He pointed out the problem many people have is knowing who to trust and where to place that trust. Is it in the government, or doctors, or Facebook and Twitter, where much of the world now turns for information?
“While evil exists, but the flip side of that is how we respond to evil when it hits us in the face. There are disasters—tornadoes, hurricanes, plagues, the virus. That is a negative, an evil, that which distorts the reality of life. But the flip side is how do we respond to those in need, to those who might be confused, to people who are just lost? Or how do we respond to what happened in Minnesota? All we can control is how we respond,” Bishop Stika said, referring to the tragic death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, who died while being held by police.
“Pentecost reminds us that God does not want us to fail in this world. Jesus did not come into this world so that we might fail. Jesus came into this world to invite us to a deeper and greater relationship with God, to triumph over ourselves. And He made a promise because he knew the frailty of human life, of human existence, that He would send the Holy Spirit,” he continued.
He asked the congregation what proof is there of the Holy Spirit? His answer: Mary, the 11 apostles, and a few others established the Church with such a foundation that it has stood more than 2,000 years despite the work of evil and even Christians to destroy Christianity.
“Let us rejoice. Let us know that God does not want us to fail. Let us love each other more and more every day. And let us accept the invitation of Jesus Himself at times to carry our cross … and God’s guarantee that He would send us the Holy Spirit,” the bishop said.
In looking out over the congregation, which was smaller than usual because of social-distancing guidelines, Bishop Stika acknowledged the masks are awkward, as are other parts of the COVID-19 protocol. He also acknowledged the difference in opinions over the protocol, including receiving the holy Eucharist in the hand only.
“I know it’s a bit odd to wear the masks. I know it’s difficult. I know it’s challenging. I know some of the mandates like how to receive Communion only on the hand you might disagree with. I’m doing the best I can. I’ve been looking on Google and Amazon for a book called ‘How a Bishop Deals with a Pandemic for Dummies.’ There isn’t one yet. But just imagine all the books that are going to be written after this,” Bishop Stika mused.
“If I’ve disappointed you or if you’re disappointed with the Church because we had to close the doors for public Masses, I’m sorry. We just don’t know everything, and I don’t know where we can look except to God for serenity, peace, and acceptance,” the bishop concluded.
Bishop Stika told the catechumens and candidates that heaven rejoices with them “for this is what faith is all about.”
Rules of participation
Attendance at diocesan churches is being restricted at Masses until further notice. To satisfy social-distancing mandates, every other pew in each church had to remain vacant, and members of congregations were urged to leave space between each other.
Parishes are asking members to RSVP, if possible, if and when they are attending Masses, with several churches using online tools like Sign Up Genius, where sign-ups are on the church website.
With capacity restrictions in place, Bishop Stika authorized priests to add Masses to accommodate all parishioners. While attendance at each Mass was about half or less than normal, priests reported many, if not most, of their parishioners were able to attend Mass at one of the regular or added times.
Bishop Stika issued a list of mandatory procedures to be implemented by parishes for the safe resumption of public Mass celebrations.
“During this unprecedented time in history where we have had to weigh our spiritual needs and heartfelt desires against the protection of our general health and the health of our families, I am grateful to all of you for your patience and kindness demonstrated throughout these last few months,” Bishop Stika told parishioners in a pastoral letter issued May 6.
In his letter, Bishop Stika also extended his dispensation indefinitely to all Catholics living in the Diocese of Knoxville from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass.
“Let me emphasize, if you are vulnerable, elderly, or just not comfortable going to a public Mass beginning May 30-31, please stay home!” Bishop Stika said.
A formal decree from Bishop Stika accompanies his pastoral letter and outlines specific actions that must take place for churches in the diocese to open safely. As the diocese returns to normal Mass schedules, the bishop said he is “committed to protecting our priests and deacons and the parishioners whom they serve.”
Containing the excitement
For Ashney and Josh Patoka, their newfound faith must have seemed over before it barely began as the coronavirus crept closer and closer to their family sanctuary.
Mr. and Mrs. Patoka entered the Catholic Church at Easter vigil in 2019, and their 6-monthold son, Dominic, was baptized at Sacred Heart Cathedral in December. The Patokas also are parents of 3-year-old Cybil and 4-year-old Nora.
Following in the former Lutherans’ footsteps in joining the Catholic Church are Mrs. Patoka’s parents and sisters. But their plans to enter the Church at Easter vigil were suddenly sidetracked by this invisible viral invader.
“My husband and I entered the Church last year, and the Easter vigil was such a memorable time. This year, of course, looked a little different for those wishing to enter,” Mrs. Patoka said.
“My parents and sisters came in (at the Pentecost vigil Mass) with confirmation and then baptism for the youngest. The excitement had built for those 50 extra days.”
“I am so blessed to have been raised in a Christian home, but now to be united in the Catholic faith is even better,” she added.
During the 50 days that public Masses were suspended, the Patokas took their children to adoration most every week to maintain the routine of prayer and quiet time at church.
“In addition, we livestreamed Mass most weeks and continued our daily liturgy readings and prayer surrounding our meal times. We also made a very big deal about feast days and saints to help keep the children connected to the Church,” Mrs. Patoka said. “But to actually worship with our brothers and sisters again and help celebrate the Mass was a very special moment—almost like a burden lifted.”
The Patokas said their children were excited about returning to Mass, which “is the highlight of the week around here.” Mr. and Mrs. Patoka had no reservations about returning to Mass amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We were so delighted to be back worshiping together. Mass is not always easy with three little ones, but there was such a void in us without it these past weeks,” Mrs. Patoka said.
Many elderly Catholics and those with underlying health conditions throughout the diocese remained home as public Masses resumed, as advised by health-care professionals and Bishop Stika.
But the ones who attended Mass had been looking forward to being in church again and were grateful to again be receiving the source and summit, the holy Eucharist.
Sharon Vannucci, a parishioner of St. Stephen in Chattanooga is one of those.
“I’m excited to be back. I think they’ve done a great job in informing us what to do. St. Stephen kept us informed by e-mail and Flocknote,” Mrs. Vannucci said, noting that she and her husband practiced their faith remotely during the COVID-19 hiatus.
“We attended Mass through Facebook with Father Manuel (Pérez, pastor).”
St. Stephen parishioner Elaine Holland also was excited to be back in church.
“I’m thankful, very thankful. It’s been good what we’ve had, but this is much, much better,” Ms. Holland said, adding that she has been attending St. Stephen services via livestreamed Masses. “These have helped fill in the void, but this (Mass in person) is much better.”
At St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland, Chris Schaefer was thrilled to be in the pews, taking part in Mass in person.
“It’s wonderful to be part of the family of faith again. It was difficult watching it at home, but I’m glad we could still be part of the Church. We watched Mass through Facebook Live videos. We had a little home altar and tried to get the kids involved in participating in the Mass, such as it was,” Mr. Schaefer said.
Fellow St. Thérèse of Lisieux parishioner Holly Whitsitt shared Mr. Schaefer’s sentiments.
“I’m ecstatic,” Ms. Whitsitt said, noting that what she missed the most was receiving holy Communion, a sentiment shared by most every diocesan parishioner.
“We had Mass every day livestreamed so we could have it at home and make a spiritual Communion. That was a great blessing to us. And the church was open all day for visitation of the Blessed Sacrament,” Ms. Whitsitt said about practicing her faith over the past two months.
Praying ‘new normal’ will become old normal
At St. Henry Church in Rogersville, Father Bartholomew Okere welcomed his members back on Pentecost Sunday and acknowledged the “new normal” as he told them he looks forward to the community returning to normal.
The “new normal” is a church that is intentionally half-empty, with hand sanitizer stations greeting parishioners at every turn as those parishioners are obscured by protective masks during Mass, and the addition of a second Sunday Mass in accordance with social distancing guidelines, a first for him at St. Henry.
“I am glad the bishop has opened the churches of the Diocese of Knoxville today, on Pentecost,” he said.
But he shared his parishioners’ concerns about the “new normal.” Despite the COVID-inspired upheaval, Father Okere said his parish is adjusting fine to the changes.
“This is not easy. It is not normal for people to wear masks. I’m going to put on my own mask when I’m giving you Communion. It is not normal. People don’t breathe well wearing masks. But to protect yourself and to protect others you have to put on face masks. It’s the new normal,” he said.
In his homily, Father Okere joined Bishop Stika in describing how society is hurting, from the coronavirus outbreak to the tragic death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the riots that resulted, and all the acrimony in between.
“We are wounded. America is wounded. The world is wounded. Families are wounded. We’ve never seen this before since 1918 with the Spanish flu. This is just the second pandemic. No vaccine, no cure yet. More than 100,000 Americans are dead. Almost 2 million people have been infected, and people are being infected every day,” the pastor of St. Henry said.
“This Mass I’m celebrating is a Mass of thanksgiving. Pentecost of love and thanks be to God. And I’m thankful we didn’t lose anybody here in our parish. Thank you, God. This Mass is a Mass of thanksgiving that we are alive. Please pray to Our Lady; pray to Our Lord, Jesus Christ; pray to St. Henry and St. James,” he said, noting that he pastors at St. James the Apostle Parish in Sneedville, too.
Father Okere juxtaposed the triumph May 30 of two U.S. astronauts aboard the first manned U.S. spacecraft blasting off on American soil since 2011 with the coronavirus outbreak, racial divide and the death of Mr. Floyd, recent nationwide rioting, and general societal discord.
And he asked, “What’s going on?” It’s a familiar refrain posed by a popular song from 1971, also during societal strife.
“America is a super country. It is resilient, and it will survive,” Father Okere observed, “As long as people come back to church.”
He pointed to his St. Henry and St. James congregations, where members have been asking him when they can return to Mass.
“People have been calling the office often and asking ‘when are we coming back to receive Christ? It’s been two months.’ So, we are receiving Christ today,” Father Okere said. “We’re all going to be happy. Jesus said now is the time to come back.”
He pointed out that Jesus is also pleased the faithful are returning to Mass.
“Holy Spirit, please heal our wounds; heal our fragmentation; heal our division; heal our sickness, our brokenness,” he prayed. “Pentecost, my dear friends, is with us today, and it happened 2,000 years ago when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles.”
“My dear friends, you have been suffering, we have been suffering, the Catholic Church has been suffering for 2,000 years. How can it survive? It did by the Holy Spirit,” he added.
“Pentecost reminds us that we have the power to communicate the Spirit of God to all people, no matter what your address is, or your degree, or your color, or your gender.”
Father Okere also prayed for the Holy Spirit to provide wisdom, love, understanding, piety, gratitude, and faithfulness to a world in distress.
Among the parishioners Father Okere was reaching with his homily was 18-year-old Reannon Wilkosz, who was recognized for being a 2020 graduate of Cherokee High School in Hawkins County.
Just like the other 30 people at Mass, and the 30 or so at the other Sunday Mass at St. Henry, Reannon was glad to be back in church, but the coronavirus-prevention measures will take some getting used to.
“It’s good coming back, but it’s kind of weird. I’m glad to be back,” Reannon said, noting that while she was away from St. Henry, she also was away from Cherokee High School.
She was able to finish her senior classes online, preparing her for college at Walters State Community College in Morristown.
The COVID-19 outbreak has been an education for her, but she isn’t intimidated by it.
“I’m going into the medical field to study nursing, so this doesn’t scare me too much,” Reannon said.
Bill Hewitt, deputy Grand Knight of Knights of Columbus Council 8860 at St. Henry and district deputy for Knights of Columbus District 20, couldn’t hide his enthusiasm about his parish reopening. As an usher, Mr. Hewitt had the added duty of making sure the safe distancing protocols were followed.
But even that couldn’t overshadow his delight.
“It’s fantastic. To be back in the church is wonderful,” Mr. Hewitt said, grinning widely. “Just being back in the church is an absolute blessing. This social distancing is a minor thing. We are maintaining our safe space.
“The heart aches for being back in church. You can see people’s eyes even if you can’t see their faces. It’s wonderful. And it gives us renewed energy to be back. We know that personal interaction is so important in the Catholic Church.”
Mr. Hewitt explained that St. Henry normally sees 90 to 95 members at its 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. There were 60 members total attending the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Masses on Pentecost Sunday, which he believes were good congregations given the concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
He said many parishioners came back, but he noted that the parish’s elderly members are staying home for now.
“It’s been heartwarming. Our parishioners were very kind and cooperative. They were just glad to be back,” Mr. Hewitt said.