Editor’s Note: As we go to press with this issue of OC Catholic, indoor Masses remain suspended. It’s anticipated that we’ll soon be able to re-open our churches with limited attendance.
One of the silver linings in the dark cloud of the coronavirus is the emergence of outdoor Masses, weddings, baptisms, confirmations, and funerals throughout Orange County’s Catholic parishes.
At a time when isolation admittedly is a somber part of Catholic family life, Diocese of Orange parishes are bringing our beloved sacraments and liturgical celebrations outdoors in a variety of original ways.
“Science seems to be saying that the coronavirus doesn’t do as well outdoors,” observes Most Rev. Timothy Freyer, auxiliary bishop, so diocesan leaders this spring blessed the idea of heading outside with religious ceremonies. “The people are reassured that it’s a safe, clean, positive experience.”
Parishioners appreciate being outdoors, Bishop Freyer says. “It offers us a chance to be in nature, and there’s a sense of community in standing together under the sky.”
At Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, Pastor Steve Sallot says parishioners are enthused about outdoor Masses, drive-through Eucharistic celebrations, and a recent Anointing of the Sick ceremony. “We are blessed here in Southern California with generally good weather,” Fr. Sallot notes, “and we are especially blessed along the coast to usually have a breeze and cooler temperatures.
“I must admit when the sun is blazing and I’m covered in vestments, standing outside, I miss the air conditioning in the church,” he adds. “But most of us feel blessed to be in the outside environment, especially during the early-hour liturgies or the early-evening liturgies. It is beautiful!”
When the pandemic first hit and churches were forced to close, many parishes immediately hopped online and began livestreaming Masses, offering daily social media meditations and prayers, and established virtual Bible studies and other church ‘gatherings,’ Bishop Freyer explains.
“We’ve learned how to use technology and tools that hopefully we will continue to use for years to come,” he says. “Livestreamed Bible studies, Engaged Encounters, prayer meetings – we want to continue to see those, because the sick and homebound keep their close connections to their local parishes.”
In addition to longtime parishioners, some of those who make their way to a livestreamed Mass or visit a drive-by sacrament are non-practicing Catholics or those who are interested in the Catholic faith, Bishop Freyer says. “There are new relationships with the Church coming from our livestreaming efforts,” he declares. “As much as possible, our Church of tradition is reading the signs of the times and becoming innovative, finding effective new ways of doing all the ministries.” He notes that these new efforts are a logical extension of Bishop Kevin Vann’s Strategic Plan, the diocese’s recently adopted guide for growth.
Pastor Angelos Sebastian of St. Kilian Church in Mission Viejo agrees. “What we are doing now is reaching more people than we ever imagined,” Fr. Sebastian says. “Last week I met someone who said he wasn’t ready to come back to Church, but he watched our social media messages and attended our online Masses, and said ‘I realize now that the Church is not the same anymore’ and is open to coming back.”
At St. Kilian, some Masses are livestreamed, all are offered outside with people remaining in their cars until communion, and a drive-by weekly confession service attracts hundreds of cars.
“I’m meeting with people who have fallen away from the Church and they are thrilled to embrace the Church because the Church is embracing them,” Fr. Sebastian says. “They tell me they never will leave again.”
While the pandemic has been a huge disruption, the Church has adapted creatively to live and streaming services. “This can be a clarifying moment for us,” notes Katie Dawson, diocesan director of parish faith formation and evangelization.
“The outdoor worship services have been surprisingly better than I imagined,” says Father Daniel Seo, parochial vicar at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange. “The parishioners have been very respectful and doing their best to maintain an atmosphere of silent prayer before beginning. Sometimes, I find that there is better silent prayer and preparation before beginning the celebration outside, than in our church.”
Church leaders say they hope that moving forward parishes will offer hybrid programs that will continue to reach people live and online. “Our parishioners share the links with their friends and families,” Fr. Sebastian notes, “and we have attendees from 24 different countries watching our livestreamed Masses.”
In addition to offering outdoors funerals and weddings, local parishes are scheduling outdoor baptisms, RCIA ceremonies, and confirmations. “I think we will see our ministries taking place in different ways moving forward,” Bishop Freyer says. “The faith formation efforts of our parishes provide flexibility and allow individuals to have a relationship with Christ and the Church.
“I’m grateful that the people have been so positive and for their support of our parishes,” he adds. “It’s been inspiring.”