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Pensacola-Tallahassee Catholic Diocese Holding In-House Mass Again

Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese

After a nearly two-month hiatus, Sunday and weekday services with a congregation present resumed early last month in the Pensacola-Tallahassee Catholic Diocese, with protective measures in place against the coronavirus.

Masses have been celebrated online throughout the diocese since March. Reopening its 57 brick and mortar parishes, said Bishop William Wack, was a team decision.

“Physicians, some folks who work in the community, as well as priests, deacons, and some lay ministers here in the Pastoral Center,” Wack said. “We have met a couple of times and we came to the conclusion that it was time – time to do this, time to open our churches again to congregations.”

That team also put some safety guidelines in place. First and foremost, mask up.

“Just like they would in the grocery store and anywhere else [and] 6 ft. distancing, and the gesture of the Sign of Peace,” said Wack. “There’s no hugging or kissing or handshakes at that point; just bow or smile or wave to the person next to you. And then we strongly recommend that if someone’s going to receive communion they receive in the hand, not on the tongue.”

Catholics are obligated to attend mass each Sunday and on holy days. For now, the obligation remains suspended by the diocese – but it’s not an out-and-out ban.

“If you want to go you can, and it’s an opportunity to do that; but if you’re anxious or afraid for any reason of attending in person, then please – stay home and watch on the Internet and participate that way,” said Wack.

Each pastor in the diocese makes the decision on whether or not to open their parish’s doors. Wack says they know better than anyone else what works best for their congregations.

“Some of our large churches, they’re able to bring in many more people with social distancing,” the bishop said. Some of our really small chapels, they have to think, ‘Can we safely even have 10 people – is that safe? Or maybe we could celebrate mass outside in the parking lot or on the grass.’”

Wack also has praise for the way clergy has handled technology in ministering to their flocks during the pandemic, especially older priests who did not grow up in a world that’s online and web-streaming.

Credit Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese
Bishop William Wack, Pensacola-Tallahassee Catholic Diocese.

“I saw a meme that was really funny; it was from Forrest Gump. It just has him looking into the camera and he says, ‘And just like that, we was all televangelists,’” said Wack. “It’s not a matter of now that we’re returning to church is that going away? I think that will strongly influence the way we minister the future as well. We’ll have that, alongside our masses in person.”

Besides the restricted contact during mass, COVID-19 has also led to the closing of Catholic schools along with their public counterparts. Both are now instructing online. But Wack adds the outreach programs in the diocese are continuing.

“To help people pay their rent or their utility bills; we’ve helped those who are homeless and those in great need, as well as those who are looking to adopt – we’re still helping those folks,” Wack said. “It’s slowed us down, of course, because of the distancing and all that but we’re still out there doing what we can to help others.”

When the pandemic is over – whenever that may be – Wack says he’ll take away some lessons learned from the experience.

“To be more attentive to the needs of people – the whole person and not just listen to ‘They’re really mad at me for closing the church,” said Wack. “I get a lot of emails and a lot of calls about that. But instead of reacting I think, ‘You know, they’re hurting; they’re afraid, they’re anxious.’ We all are; this is so new that we just need to step back a little bit and help each other to get through this.”

Many are aggrieved – and angered – over losing a loved one to the virus and for those who are seriously ill. The grief is exacerbated by not being able to visit COVID patients and/or to say goodbye. Some of them blame God.

“I can’t imagine that God is up there saying, ‘I want to cause all of this suffering with this virus,’” said Wack. “At the same time it’s part of our fallen world – sin and death and selfishness and sickness. I believe God allows this and works with it in some way to bring us back to God – back to one another perhaps.”

And along those lines, Bishop William Wack – aka “Bishop Bill” – was asked if the coronavirus could in some way lead to a spiritual reawakening. He says, stay tuned.

“After 9/11 people rushed back to the churches and synagogues and mosques; but that lasted for about 2, 3, 4 weeks,” said Wack. “I hope it will, I’d like to think it will. Judging from some of the letters and the correspondence I’m hearing, how people are so passionate, I hope that translates into a lifetime desire to be with the Lord.”

More information is available at www.ptidocese.org.