Parishes May Celebrate First Christmas Mass Earlier This Year

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A letter to priests in the archdiocese about the scheduling of Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day said Cardinal Dolan has given parishes permission for 2020 to celebrate the first Mass of Christmas on Thursday, Dec. 24, at 2 p.m.

Cardinal Dolan specified that the local pastor is responsible for setting the schedule of Christmas Masses in his own parish, the letter said. It stressed that the time change is being made “during a time of international emergency” brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The first Mass of Christmas is traditionally offered at 4 p.m. or later on Dec. 24. Before making his decision, the letter said the cardinal received counsel from auxiliary bishops, regional deans and the college of consultors in the archdiocese.

The letter, sent to priests Nov. 9, was from Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, the vicar general and moderator of the curia in the archdiocese.

In a follow-up interview with Catholic New York, Msgr. LaMorte said the information was presented to priests so they would have ample time to consult with their staffs to determine the best Christmas schedule for the parish, given the limits of priest personnel and the requirements of social distancing and other safety protocols now in place inside parish churches due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also taken into consideration was the difficulty in communicating with Christmas visitors who do not normally attend Masses at other times of the year. The number of such visitors has traditionally been significant in many parishes. 

“Relying on the normal process of communication, we’re not going to be able to do that with a lot of people,” Msgr. LaMorte said.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many people will attend Christmas Masses in the archdiocese this year. Mass attendance since churches reopened near the end of June is currently about 50 percent of the number of attendees in February, before the coronavirus outbreak occurred in New York the following month, Msgr. LaMorte said.

The vicar general noted that pastors have told him there are “still identifiable, recognizable, familiar people who have not” returned to worship in parish churches.

Some priests have wondered about offering additional Masses for Christmas when the need for them may not be as great as in years past, Msgr. LaMorte said.  

“They’re expecting the unexpected is the best way to put it,” Msgr. LaMorte said.

Priests, especially those serving in one-priest parishes, are “very concerned” about giving the impression they are “inhospitable” if they don’t add Masses and their church buildings fill up to the point where people can’t be safely accommodated.

One of the observations offered in the letter suggested the use of tickets to avoid turning parishioners away or creating an unhealthy situation at Christmas, along with an explanation for why reservations are necessary at this time. 

Working together cooperatively with other parishes in their deanery or cluster may enable pastors to alleviate their concerns. By planning ahead, Msgr. LaMorte said parishes could reassure worshippers whose holiday plans may keep them away from their home parish that they are free to visit another nearby church for Christmas, “but please come back, because we want you back.”

Many parishes have done a good job convincing Catholics they could worship virtually, especially in the pandemic’s first months. “Some pastors are now saying, in light of all that, Christmas is a good time to come back to your parish church,” Msgr. LaMorte said. “Come back, we can reassure you that it’s a safe environment.”

“The parish church could be the place where we try to combat the isolation and loneliness people have been experiencing over these months of quarantine.”

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