After three months without Mass, the changes to services at St. Joseph Catholic Church are apparent before stepping inside. Blue crosses dot the sidewalk leading up to the front door where people line up six feet apart before being asked if they have any symptoms of COVID-19.
Then, people sanitize and are given a face mask if they don’t already have one before being shown to a designated spot in the pews.
“It’s social distancing from the time you arrive on the property until you leave,” said the Rev. Gary Lazzeroni, pastor at the central Vancouver church.
Like many faith communities, Catholic parishes in Clark County are reopening for daily and Sunday services. Other houses of worship are taking extra caution and continue to hold services online only.
Catholics are normally obligated to attend Mass every Sunday, but in March, the Archdiocese of Seattle suspended public Mass, impacting nine Catholic parishes in Clark County. Catholics are still dispensed of their obligation to attend Mass.
Lazzeroni said this means Catholics shouldn’t feel like they are sinning or breaking church law by not coming to church. In a YouTube video explaining the new Mass protocol, Lazzeroni asks his flock not to come to Mass every Sunday to give other people a chance to attend within the limitations.
Under the adjusted Phase 2 guidelines for religious services — which allow 25 percent of building capacity or up to 200 people, whichever is less — St. Joseph can host about 150 people. Signing up for services in advance and wearing face masks are required.
For a denomination marked by repetition and ritual, Mass looks different.
There is no shaking hands and no singing, no communion cup, no holy water, no processions and no passing of collection baskets — all to help prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus. The liturgy and preaching are also shorter.
“Which will be good news to some of you,” Lazzeroni quipped in the YouTube video.
One of the biggest changes is communion is at the end of Mass. People are asked to extend their hand with a flat palm and then step to the side to remove their face mask and receive communion.
Larry Cadorniga, the pastoral assistant for liturgy and stewardship at St. Joseph, said all Catholic parishes in Washington are adhering to the same guidelines but implementing them differently.
St. Thomas Aquinas in Camas, for instance, began holding outdoor Masses this month. The Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in downtown Vancouver was among the first to restart indoor Mass earlier this month and recently expanded its capacity to 100 people.
Cadorniga said attendance is slowly going back up.
“They’re not coming back in droves yet,” he said.
He imagines there is still fear among seniors, the age group that pre-coronavirus was most likely to attend Mass at least weekly. According to the Department of Health, 90 percent of Washington’s COVID-19 deaths have been among those age 60 and older. Cadorniga is also well aware of the coronavirus outbreak at Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church near La Grande, Ore., which The Oregonian/OregonLive said pushed the state to a record number of cases.
Helen Sullivan is glad St. Joseph staff are taking steps to keep people safe.
Coming to church in person and physically receiving communion “was major,” she said. “Whatever can be done to do this safely, we’re on board.”
After Thursday’s Mass, Sullivan volunteered to monitor personal prayer — another aspect of Catholicism that’s been scaled down due to COVID-19. Other volunteers donned gloves and sprayed down the pews with disinfectant.
Lazzeroni said all of the bishops in Washington had to agree before submitting a document to the governor’s office about what Mass would look like. It’s unusual the archdioceses would collaborate on liturgy, he said.
The Catholic church is about 2,000 years old and described as the oldest institution in the Western world. Yet, the coronavirus pandemic prompted parishes to modernize (if they hadn’t already) by livestreaming services and keeping in touch with parishioners via Zoom, social media, email and phone calls. For the last few months, St. Joseph has recorded Sunday Mass with a cellphone, but the church is looking into buying a video camera.
Lazzeroni said those who are vulnerable or sick should not feel they have to come to Mass in person.
“For that reason, we’re going to continue livestreaming the Mass for the foreseeable future, maybe forever,” Lazzeroni said.
The videos also reach people the church wouldn’t normally reach.
“Somehow watching the Mass online has captured them and they’ve been doing it consistently,” Lazzeroni said.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in April found that about a quarter of U.S. adults (and 27 percent of Catholics) said coronavirus strengthened their faith even though most houses of worship were closed. Most people said their faith hadn’t changed much during the pandemic.