By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 19, 2020
ATLANTA—Avion and Robert Anderson attended their usual 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass on March 15 at St. Clare of Assisi Church, Acworth, but found it changed. Prior to the announcement of a total suspension of public Mass, a dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass was in place for one weekend.
“Typically, the 10:30 Mass is packed. We usually have to put chairs in the lobby. Yesterday, I cried a lot. It was so different,” said Avion Anderson, 39, about the Mass.
So many families were absent and a hush was noticeable, she said. The Anderson family weighed whether to attend. In the end, their three children watched it online from home and the parents attended. Robert Anderson serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and wanted to be available if needed.
At the same time, Avion said she was pleased some of the older, frail parishioners chose to stay home.
“I was hoping they would not be there. I was happy, but at the same time, it was sad,” she said.
The parish leaned on technology to stream Mass online, which drew people from afar. Anderson said her mother-in-law and sister-in-law in Virginia along with a brother-in-law in South Carolina watched through Facebook.
Her three children—two enrolled at St. Catherine of Siena School and one at a public high school—are settling in with distance learning, making sure their devices and technology work.
Anderson said she and her family will be paying attention to the news for next steps.
“We understand social distancing. We get flattening the curve. I trust the scientists and the doctors know what they are talking about,” she said.
Uniting in prayer
Father Dennis Dorner, parochial vicar at the Shrine of Immaculate Conception, said it’s a strange position to be in to be a priest and not celebrate public Mass. But he said prayer is a link to the wider community.
“It allows me to unite myself with all the faithful rather than just those in front of me” in prayer, Father Dorner said.
Mass attendance at the downtown Atlanta church was about half its usual weekend amount, he said.
Instead, he turned to Facebook as a place to serve people. His goal is to give people opportunities for prayer, comfort and community.
“People are hungry, people are thirsty, people are craving this,” he said.
Catholics are believers shaped by ritual and sacraments, so without the community or the sacraments, it can be jarring, he said. Father Dorner’s motivation is to help people learn to create their “own ritual and faith life within their own sacred space” when they have to be separated from their faith community, he said. His goal is to provide “answers and comfort in the uncertainty,” he said.
Depending on the response from viewers, he expects to broadcast a live Facebook video daily at 11 a.m. to share a spiritual message, answer viewers’ questions and help people understand the faith response to the required social distancing.
At Emory University Catholic Center, some 30 people attended Mass when a typical Sunday attendance would have been around 200.
Michael Zauche, the lay campus minister, said most undergraduates had already left the university housing and returned home. People attending Mass were graduate students along with community supporters, he said.
Everyone was cautious and given hand sanitizer at the entry, the sign of peace was omitted, the Communion cup was not shared. The usual coffee social was canceled to reduce the chance of spreading illness, he said.
Zauche said students have been dismissed from campus, but the Catholic center staff will reach out to them one by one to check in.
“The upheaval the students are going through is extremely stressful. We want them to know, more than anything, they are not really alone,” he said.
Our hope and consolation
Alan and Susan Zarter were on the fence about attending Mass. But in the end, they considered their ages. He is 73 and opted instead to view the livestream of the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville.
“It’s foolish on our part to attend and become carriers,” he said.
Instead, from home the two shared a screen of an iPhone and watched Mass.
They prayed aloud and held hands during the Lord’s prayer, Zarter said, But “sure missed receiving the Eucharist though.”
At the end, Zarter said the service allowed them to participate.
“I didn’t like it. It’s one of those things, it’s the best you can do given the circumstances. We truly enjoy being part of the community,” he added.
St. Lawrence is a church with many nationalities and cultures represented, he said.
“It is something you miss,” he said.
The Zarters did learn a trick—how to watch parish Mass on their smart TV.
The phone was fine, “but it’ll be even better on the big screen,” he said.
Andrew Lewis of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, was happy to see people still attending the weekend of March 15, even with the obligation dispensed.
“We had sign of peace without shaking hands, did not distribute the Blood of Christ, and all received the Body of Christ in hand. I think all were appropriate responses by the church, explained and executed well,” said Lewis.
“Usually our 11 a.m. Mass is packed but there were very few people and families there yesterday,” said Elizabeth Long, who attends Good Shepherd Church, Cumming. “We didn’t shake hands during the sign of peace, the Blood of Christ wasn’t distributed and our holy water font was covered … there was also hand sanitizer galore.”
Msgr. Frank McNamee, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King, spoke about fear during his homily at the 10:30 a.m. Mass Sunday. The Mass was available by livestream and a smaller than normal number attended.
“2020 has been anything but normal,” said Msgr. McNamee. “The virus is no respecter of persons. So what do we do? We rely on God as our strength, our hope and our consolation.”
Staff Writer Samantha Smith and Editor Nichole Golden contributed to this story.