What A Drive-In Mass Looks Like In the Age of Coronavirus

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/03/29/what-a-drive-in-mass-looks-like-in-the-age-of-coronavirus/

A sign at the parking lot across the street from a Catholic church this morning told visitors not to get out of their car for any reason.

Another sign said to tune in to FM 90.1.

At about 10 minutes to 10, vehicles intermittently stopped traffic to get into the parking lot, where a woman quickly handed them a bulletin and a printout of the readings and told them to park anywhere they could. Drivers either backed into a spot or angled their cars broadside.

Our Lady of Grace is a medium-size brick church built close to a busy two-way street called George Waterman Road in Johnston, Rhode Island, a town of about 29,000 people west of Providence. The center line is not the usual white or yellow, but rather the three colors of the flag of Italy:  red, white, and green.

Like just about every other Catholic church in the country, Our Lady of Grace is not allowed by its local bishop to have public Masses inside the church, for fear that church-goers will spread coronavirus. But the pastor announced about 12 days ago that he planned to offer two Masses each weekend (at 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday) from the church entrance, directed at the parking lot across the street.

Just about the whole lot has a decent view of the main entrance to the church, albeit cluttered by telephone poles, wires, and other cars.

This morning, just inside the front door stood a moveable wooden altar with lit candles on it. It was about as far from where the altar usually is as you could get and still be inside the building, which it was, by perhaps a few feet.

At 9:59 a.m. a male cantor’s voice came over the airwaves singing “Ave Maria” a cappella, followed by the pastor, Father Peter Gower, beginning Mass at 10 a.m. on the dot with the Sign of the Cross.

Soft static accompanied the voices, of the white-noise FM variety. It wasn’t the harsh tones of AM, however, and it did not obscure the sound from the microphones.

A light rain fell, leading congregants to put their windshield wipers on occasionally to clear the view. The slight splash of car tires on a wet road filtered through the microphone as vehicles passed by.

The rhythm of Mass is a series of prayers by the priest interrupted throughout by responses from the people. Usually the responses and the group prayers are loud, even if a church is mostly empty. On this day, though, each vehicle served as a sort of extension of the sanctuary, with prayers audible only within.

As befit the setting, the Our Lady of Grace parking lot Mass was built for speed. It included a shortened version of the responsorial psalm and a shorter version of the Gospel reading.

Father Gower did the readings himself, remaining standing directly behind the altar. After the opening hymn, there was no further singing.

The first reading this weekend at Catholic churches all over the world is from Ezekiel 37. It was selected for this day many years ago by a Scripture expert at the Vatican and subsequently approved by a pope long dead. Yet it seemed as though picked sometime last week for people brought low by a worldwide plague. It includes the passage:

“Thus says the Lord God:  O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!”

Likewise the second reading, from Romans 8, which says in part:

 If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”

That led into the Gospel reading, which is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament:  John 11, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Everyone remembers that part, which is vividly portrayed in the 1977 television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. But something Jesus says when he first hears that his friend Lazarus is sick also speaks to the current crisis:

“This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Father Gower kept his sermon short – 2 minutes 36 seconds.

He began by pointing out that we don’t always understand how God works.

Coronavirus, for instance, seems nothing but bad:  Many people are getting sick, some people are dying, huge numbers are losing their jobs, all of us are affected by the sudden downturn in the economy.

If God doesn’t cause such things, why does He permit them?

We don’t know.

“However, we do know that God is with us, and in that some way that we cannot always see, He is bringing good from it all,” Father Gower said. “In this life, we only see part of the picture. All we are called to do is pick up our cross, follow Jesus, trusting that God has everything under control.”

Even if we don’t know for sure why God permits what He permits, we can see avenues of hope.

“Maybe accepting our suffering with patience and courage might inspire others to accept the challenges that they’ll face in these trying times. Perhaps offering our hurt up to God is opening up channels of grace that are bringing sinners to repentance,” Father Gower said.

Our prayers are acceptable anywhere, even in the least likely places.

“Jesus assures us if we believe we will see the glory of God,” the priest said. “And so my dear friends, let us go forth from this place with confidence, that whatever is waiting for us beyond this parking lot, God will work miracles for us.”

The center of the Mass is not the sermon or even the Scripture readings, but rather the consecration, where, according to Church teaching, an ordained priest standing in for Jesus uses the words of Jesus at the Last Supper to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. As at every Mass, the priest this morning performed the consecration and consumed the host and drank from the chalice.

Here is where words fail. If you have never experienced the consecration in person through eyes of faith, I can’t make you see it. But at that moment I felt an electricity in the air, beyond what I have experienced watching Mass online these past couple of weeks.

Because of the virus, communion was not distributed to the faithful afterward. There was no collection. Instead, the priest moved to the closing prayers.

Toward the end, Father Gower announced that the oldest woman in Rhode Island, Emma Pezza, attended the 4 p.m. parking lot Mass at Our Lady of Grace yesterday — on her 109th birthday. She was planning to observe the 10 a.m. Mass online.

“She’s watching this morning, and I ask you to blow your horns to show her your love,” he said.

On the parish’s Facebook page video, there’s about a seven-second delay while the priest’s words make their way through the airwaves to the cars in the parking lot. Then the car horns cut loose.

After the final blessing, the priest walked just outside the church and waved, as the vehicles let loose with more blasts.

Mass ended at 10:19.