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Churches across Orange County celebrate fellowship in person again

For the 12 weeks, Father Steve Sallot has been holding Mass by speaking into a camera.

He would sit in the back of Our Lady Queen of Angels and imagine his church full of thousands of parishioners. Then, with that image in his mind’s eye, he’d step to the altar and address the camera.

“Initially, I’d look around like I was looking at people in the church,” he said. “But, after a few weeks, people told me, ‘Look at us, we’re the camera.’ When I looked at the camera, I knew I was looking at them.”



Still, the experience was not what the longtime Catholic priest was accustomed to.

“As a pastor of a parish, I love to see people,” he said. “There is a real hunger for people to come back.”

On Saturday night, June 13, Sallot will hold his first vigil Mass at the Newport Beach church. On Sunday, June 14, he expects to speak to hundreds more during the church’s five services.

But still, with some of the new limitations in place to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, Mass will not be exactly what he is accustomed to.

Public services at Our Lady Queen of Angels and 56 others parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange are resuming this weekend following a recent announcement in which the diocese laid out a phased-in approach to bring back its parishioners and services.

Churches of all faiths across Orange County closed when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders on March 19 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They only began to slowly reopen in late May.

The diocese will follow the guidelines set up by state and local officials, which emphasize social distancing. That means there will be no worship greetings, no mingling with coffee and donuts in the fellowship halls and no singing amid the congregation. Ushers will be there to remind people to stay socially distanced.

“I’m a little anxious about how it will all go,” Sallot admitted.

Open-air worship

At Capo Beach Church in Dana Point, church leaders are moving into the third week of holding live services.

“We spent three months doing recorded services,” said Pastor Craig Whittaker, the church’s senior pastor. “The difficulty there is there’s is no face-to-face contact.”

The key to their successful transition back to in-person service has been an expansive parking lot and beach chairs.

“On Pentecost, we had 300 and last week we had 400,” said Pastor Craig Whittaker, the church’s senior pastor. “On the first Sunday, it felt like an Easter service with people so excited to be near others.”

Whittaker said church members come to the parking lot wearing masks, they put their chairs down in spaces socially distanced from each other and then take their masks off. Families can sit together.

Individually wrapped grape juice containers with a wafer on top are used to serve communion. And the congregants can take advantage of the open space to sing during the service. Hand sanitizers are placed at various stations in the parking lot.

“It feels like a celebration of community and we’re doing it outdoors,” Whittaker said. “It’s characteristic of who we are as a beach church.”

Attending Thursday’s service, Kara Gardner, of Laguna Hills, said being able to gather with her fellow congregants again “changes everything.”

“Being in community is to feel the presence of God,” she said. “To see people singing and watch people talking and praying with each other, and to stand in front of Pastor Matt (Whitlock) and watch him deliver his service – that feeling is not communicated on screen.”

Getting ready

Sallot, a priest in the Diocese of Orange for 40 years, is ready to leave the screen and stand again in front of his congregation.

But it will still be an “experimental encounter,” he said of now leading Mass in person with the new limitations.  He likens it a bit to going to a concert where music can’t be played.

As part of the parish’s reopening plans, he conducted a poll. About 800 people responded, half saying they would return to public services.

Because churches can only have 25 percent of a building’s capacity or up to 100 worshipers at a time, the church had to do online reservations and plan five Masses to accommodate people.

He will use the parish hall to accommodate the overflow.

“There is still some angst out there,” Sallot said. “I think simply the ability to pray together in person again will be powerful in itself.”

More than half the church’s parishioners are over the age of 65 – an age group that especially vulnerable to the virus.

And some people, he said, are worried now that masks aren’t mandatory in Orange County. “I think most will wear the mask, if not for themselves then for others.”

Preparations to get ready have included color-coding the pews to guide people on seating. Families will be allowed to sit together, but will need to be six feet from the next cluster of people. Communion will be served, but only the host, or sacramental bread, will be given.

“For Catholics, the experience of receiving communion is why we’re coming back,” he added. “We will go through the whole Mass and give them communion when they exit the church.”

Administering the sacrament on the tongue will still be available, he said. “I’ve been a priest for 40 years, I know how to put that on people’s tongue without touching it.”

And Sallot will be prepared with a bottle of antiseptic. “If you touch somebody’s hand, you can turn to your side and disinfect it.”

“The biggest thing is we get a chance to be back together,” Sallot said.

Father Fred Bailey at Santa Clara de Asis Catholic Church in Yorba Linda shares Sallot’s anxiety and excitement. But he also remembers only 100 people showed up on the Sunday before the shutdown.

“I’m thinking that despite everything they’re saying about being excited to come back, I don’t think it will be like an Easter Mass,” he said – the pandemic wiped out Holy Week and Easter services.

He also thinks back to his days in Aliso Viejo when he was just starting a new parish.

“It reminds me of 24 years ago, wondering if anyone would come,” he said. “Earlier this week, I had that same memory of anxiety. We’re as ready as we can be.”

Source: Orange County Register

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