Rochester Diocese plans Christmas Masses amid uncertainty
In any other year, packed churches would be an expected part of Christmas liturgies.
But overflowing pews won’t be the norm at Christmas 2020 in the Diocese of Rochester or throughout New York state.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, state-mandated seating restrictions for houses of worship have forced a significant reduction of pew space available for Christmas Masses — and might even preclude in-person congregations altogether in certain areas.
Diocesan churches have been operating at a 33 percent allowable seating capacity since June 26, when the regions in which they’re located — Finger Lakes and Southern Tier — entered Phase Four of New York’s reopening plan. In recent weeks, many parishes have begun publicizing Christmas Mass schedules designed to accommodate the 33 percent seating.
A number of parishes, for example, are requiring advance registration — in recognition of space limitations and to facilitate contact tracing if it becomes necessary — while also stressing the ongoing need for those in attendance to comply with such safety requirements as face masks, social distancing and hand washing.
Even so, planning for Christmas Masses is only tentative. Elmira’s Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish, for example, expects to offer seven liturgies on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day combined. But as of Nov. 23, all of the parish’s churches remained within an “orange zone” covering much of Chemung County. The zone was established Oct. 21 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in order to curb sharply rising rates of COVID-19 infections in the immediate area. Attendance at religious services in an orange zone is capped at 25 people, with restrictions also applying to restaurants, schools, private gatherings and high-risk non-essential businesses.
Father Scott Kubinski, pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus, said if local infection rates don’t drop enough for the orange-zone status to be lifted by Christmas, the parish will only be able to offer Masses via livestream because so few people would be permitted to attend in person. In-person Sunday Masses have been suspended at his parish, as well as St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads, since orange-zone regulations took effect, he noted.
Meanwhile, Cuomo announced Nov. 23 that orange-zone status applied to parts of the City of Rochester, as well as the towns of Brighton, Gates, Greece, Irondequoit and Pittsford, which joined Chemung County as the only parts of the Rochester Diocese at such a high restriction level as of that date.
Sister Sheila Stevenson, RSM, pastoral administrator of Henrietta’s St. Marianne Cope Parish, said that by remaining outside the orange zone, her parish could — for the time being — plan for 33 percent capacity at its four Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses, all to be held at Guardian Angels Church. Livestreaming would become the only option if Henrietta were to move from yellow- to orange-zone status before Christmas.
Father Kubinski and Sister Stevenson acknowledged that several uncertainties remain in regard to Christmas Masses. Even if they can eventually be held in Elmira at 33 percent capacity, Father Kubinski is unsure how many people would be willing to attend while the pandemic remains a strong threat. The dispensation from Sunday and holy-day obligations granted by Bishop Salvatore R. Matano in the spring remains in effect, and Father Kubinski noted that many parishioners haven’t returned to Mass since then.
“We have no idea how people will respond,” Father Kubinski said. “This (pandemic) is unprecedented, so we have no idea what the reaction will be.”
Sister Stevenson said she also doesn’t know what to expect. On the one hand, she said one of last year’s Christmas Eve Masses at St. Marianne Cope drew 800 people. But she noted that weekly attendance numbers have been falling recently as COVID infection rates in Monroe County have accelerated. If the parish does end up celebrating its Christmas Masses with in-person congregations, there will still be restrictions with regard to singing, which serves as a potential spreader of the coronavirus, and special activities during the children’s liturgy, which would strain the ability for social distancing.
Yet despite the adjustments and unpredictability, Sister Stevenson said it’s important to maintain the season’s overall focus on the importance of celebrating Christ’s birth.
“It’s still Christmas,” she said. “People just have to accept that this is a different kind of year.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Catholic Courier will publish and regularly update a list of Christmas livestreams at https://bit.ly/ChristmasLivestreams. Parishioners should check their parish websites for information and instructions before making plans to attend Christmas Masses in person.