OCEAN CITY, MD. — With the first warm days of spring, visitors begin to flock to Delaware and Maryland beaches in search of rest and recreation.
After a year of lockdown, that spring and summer search for surf and sand may be even larger than usual. Traffic has already begun to increase with the few nice weekends.
That presents a challenge for local beach parishes as they continue to juggle the spiritual needs of their flocks with keeping those parishioners and visitors safe.
It’s a delicate balancing act and local priests have sometimes begun to resemble acrobats juggling the competing interests. Masks, social distancing and limited seating have generally been accepted by parishioners, perhaps grudgingly, but accepted nevertheless.
Delaware maintains a 50 percent capacity restriction, while parishes in Maryland have had that restriction lifted recently.
Father John Solomon, of St. Mary Star of the Sea and Holy Savior churches in Ocean City, hopes people return to the beaches and ocean, giving them a chance to appreciate and savor the beauty of God’s creation.
“We’re just hopeful we can open up as a city and state and people can come and relax. I think people need to relax,” he said. “It’s always nice to have visitors at Mass. It is a chance to come and see the Lord’s beauty.”
“By and large, people have done what they needed to do,” he said. “We are going to do what we need to do for as long as we can … This is not the first plague we have had in our time.”
Father Solomon said capacity has not been of a concern because he has a large church and a relatively small parish. He said the attitude of parishioners has almost been a sort of an English “keep calm and carry on” approach.
That commitment to keeping parishioners healthy and safe was echoed by other priests as well.
“The greatest priority of our pastoral team is to meet the sacramental and religious needs of our parishioners and visitors and to do so in the safest way possible for the health of their body and soul,” said Father Brian Lewis of St. Jude the Apostle in Lewes. “As the days lengthen and the weather warms, we at St. Jude are coordinating plans to accommodate the hopeful increased numbers of the faithful seeking to participate in Mass this summer.”
To deal with the challenge, he said St. Jude is exploring some options. “In the past, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, St Jude has added three Masses, and we anticipate the need for those additional liturgies this summer, particularly as the diocesan- and state-mandated COVID restrictions of 50 percent capacity and social distancing remain in place and most likely will remain throughout the season,” he said. “We are also exploring creative uses of our parking lot space once maximum capacity has been reached in the church. Challenges to this approach include adverse weather, technology issues and sound interference from nearby Coastal Highway.”
“It has been a challenge for our parish at St. Edmond,” said Father William Cocco of St. Edmond in Rehoboth Beach. “Our main church is small comparatively speaking. At 30 percent capacity and social distancing, we can only accommodate between 90 and 120 people. The state has raised the capacity level to 50 percent but in order to keep social distancing we cannot add any more capacity to our church. We have a hall and are planning to add Masses there in order to meet the expanded need.”
“The people have responded incredibly,” he said. “They have really rolled with the punches, so to speak. And the punches have been many. We are doing a recorded Mass each week which is available on YouTube. We have been able to stay connected with many parishioners who have opted to stay home, which is understandable for many.”
Other Catholic churches have also added a recorded Mass each week.
“Being unable to see the finish line can be very stressful for people,” said Father Solomon, reflecting on the uncertainty of the last year. “As of now, the system has worked … We will do what we have got to do.”
Father Solomon said God is a source of comfort and that “we can turn to him and rely on him” in tough times. “We have been forced to ask some hard questions and that’s not all bad.”
He said people have helped sanitize, wear masks, social distance and whatever they could to keep everyone safe. He said they will continue those efforts and keep the current system in place for now.
He said the last year has required trying to balance both mental and spiritual health. Churches have had to try to keep people physically well while also meeting the spiritual need to come and celebrate and praise.
If numbers increase to the point where capacity becomes an issue, he said that having too many people wanting to come to Mass is “a good problem to have.”
“My hope is that we are back to ‘normal’ for the summer season. Of course, that may be an entirely new ‘normal.’ I am sure that people just want to get out and socialize again,” said Father Cocco. “The restrictions have been very difficult for so many. Especially for our children and those who live alone. My hope is that we can once again enjoy, without fear, the company of one another. My trust continues to be, of course, in God that a resolution to the pandemic will come sooner, rather than later.”
“Hopefully, with the vaccines becoming more available and taken advantage of, we will be able to increase our capacity. Our parishioners have also been incredibly generous in keeping up with their contributions to our parish. Many have switched to online giving and have made our financial obligations tenable. I am so grateful to so many for this continued support to our parish,” Father Cocco said. “We also had many faithful volunteers who helped initially to clean and sanitize our church before and after each Mass. This was quite laborious until we were able to purchase the proper equipment. The people, as always, have risen to the occasion. I pray and look forward to this summer and hope that we can all gather together again as a family to praise and worship God.”
“Regardless of the challenges, the greatest concern for the clergy of St. Jude, both priests and deacons, is to meet the desire of all to attend Mass, as we are able, because no one wants to go any longer without receiving our Lord in the Eucharist,” said Father Lewis.