By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published October 1, 2020 | En Español
ATLANTA—While the sanctuary may be empty on Sunday mornings at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, its parking lot, prayer garden and nearby grassy areas are filled with parishioners attending Mass.
The Alpharetta parish recently began hosting two outdoor Sunday Masses, at 9 a.m. in English and 11 a.m. in Spanish, in the church parking lot. While tents and chairs are provided closer to the outdoor altar, families can bring their own chairs and sit further away or stay in their cars and listen on the radio.
With a large congregation and only able to host a limited number of people in the sanctuary due to COVID-19 pandemic guidelines, moving Masses outdoors became a great option.
“We wanted to be able to have as many people as we could safely at Mass,” said Lia Armistead, communications coordinator of the Alpharetta parish.
“People can stay in their cars, they can be in the prayer garden, they can be up on the steps to the building, they can be under the tents, they can be around the tents on the lawn,” explained Msgr. Daniel Stack, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, in a recent promotional video for the outdoor Masses.
Attendance has increased weekly for the outdoor Masses at the Alpharetta campus, bringing together more than 900 people between the two celebrations.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down parishes in March. Baptisms and first Communions were rescheduled. Confirmations with the bishops resumed Sept. 1. Weddings became intimate affairs with the couple and immediate family, and funeral services limited to family.
In late May, parishes were able to resume in-person worship with safety guidelines, which include social distancing, wearing face masks
and disinfecting in between Masses. A Sunday Mass dispensation has been in effect since March and will be until further notice.
As of Sept. 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 7 million coronavirus cases in the United States and 204,000 deaths. The Georgia Department of Public Health has reported more than 314,000 coronavirus cases in the state and nearly 7,000 deaths.
The Atlanta Archdiocese has been tracking COVID-19 cases of staff at parishes, schools and the Chancery since May. As of Sept. 18, 12 priests and one deacon have tested positive for coronavirus, as well as 14 parish staff across north and central Georgia.
As a community, numbers are trending in the right direction, said Maureen Smith, communications director for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. She said that the archdiocese is still at a point where vigilance is needed, particularly for the populations who are most vulnerable.
Smith is impressed and in awe of how parishes have brought the sacraments, prayer and devotions to their congregations amid the pandemic.
From outdoor Masses, figuring out livestreams, setting up phone banks to call parishioners and car parades, the efforts have been incredible, she said.
“It just shows…how much we can appreciate our faith and how much we can do to bring it to everyone,” said Smith.
Education in a pandemic
School closures filled the news in March, which included Catholic schools. Parish religious education classes also moved to online learning for the spring semester. This fall, some parishes have been able to resume in-person religious education classes, following CDC guidelines.
To provide more support for parishes, the Office of Formation and Discipleship for the Atlanta Archdiocese began hosting weekly virtual calls with parish catechetical leaders. The calls include guest speakers from various departments in the Chancery and give parish leaders a chance to engage, share ideas and ask questions.
“It’s been great for us to learn what their needs are and I know that they feel a lot more connected and supported by the archdiocese since we started having these meetings,” said Patrice Spirou, regional associate director of faith formation.
This year’s annual Atlanta Catechist Conference held virtually in late August had 5,000 registrations, with attendees from other states, Mexico, Ireland and the Philippines. It is also at this event the Office of Formation and Discipleship presented the “Families Forming Disciples” program, a family faith formation lesson plan that can be done with in-person classes, online or a combination.
“We just wanted to provide something that was going to be helpful and supportive to the people at the parishes and to their families,” said Spirou.
The 18 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta resumed in-person learning in August. An archdiocesan task force was created to help schools throughout the year follow guidelines from the CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Of the 15 elementary Catholic schools with grades pre-k through eighth grade, 15 students and 13 adults tested positive for the coronavirus. Of the three high schools, 15 students and six adults tested positive for the virus. And of the 28 Catholic preschools, one child and two adults tested positive. These were the reported numbers as of Sept. 18 and are for the fall semester.
These low numbers are a testimony to the protocol and vigilance developed by the archdiocesan task force, said Harold ‘Hal’ Plummer, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. School leaders, teachers and parents, everyone has contributed to these low numbers, he said.
“We have some remarkable educational leaders here,” said Plummer. Parents and school leaders are working together to make their Catholic schools the best they can be, he said.
For the fall semester, all school parents were given a remote-only learning option. At the beginning of the school year, a little more than 20% opted for virtual learning. This number has now dropped to about 10%.
While it’s too early to require all students to come back fully, this downward trend is promising, said Plummer. He also believes this experience shows the importance of in-person instruction.
“Technology has its merits, it’s a supporting role, of course, but (has) limitations in educating the total person, which is one of the fundamental precepts of Catholic educational philosophy,” said the superintendent. Though it’s too early now, Plummer looks forward to returning to 100% in-person learning.
As many look forward to worship and life as they know it resuming, there may be changes occurring now that will remain going forward.
Using the family faith formation model in parish religious education programs has increased during the pandemic and may continue when the virus subsides.
“The future of faith formation really is a family approach,” said Spirou.
For meetings and events, Smith sees parishes and archdiocesan offices providing more options for people to engage online, especially for those with challenging commutes.
“More places are going to be willing to offer online options for certain things than before,” said Smith.