STAMFORD—For Father Gustavo A. Falla, Pastor of St. Mary of Stamford Parish, Jesus had a clear message for Catholics as public Masses resumed inside churches on the Feast of Corpus Christi: “I want people to receive me once again.”
Over the weekend for the first time since public Masses were suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, the faithful began returning to the pews of St. Mary Parish, which includes St. Benedict-Our Lady of Monserrat. Many expressed their joy at being able to receive the Eucharist again, appropriately on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
“You can see in their expressions the eagerness to receive the Eucharist, and I find it to be a beautiful gift of the Lord for us to be able to open up to the public on the feast of Corpus Christi,” Father Falla said. “It is the Lord telling us, ‘I want to be received. I want for people to receive me once again, not only spiritually but physically.’”
Dozens of faithful gathered at St. Mary of Stamford for the 10 am Mass, one of five that were celebrated over the weekend there and at St. Benedict-Our Lady of Monserrat.
Extensive preparations went into the opening the churches. Pews were marked off with signs and tape to ensure appropriate social distancing. People were required to register in advance and wear face masks. Upon entering the side door, they were greeted by members of the Welcome Group, who provided hand sanitizer and checked their temperatures.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life, and I never anticipated anything like this, Father Falla said. “It is absolutely different. It really brings into perspective what it means to prepare for Mass. Before it was just a matter of coming in and setting up the chalice and getting the readings and all that, but at this point it is very important that every individual who comes in is safe and that the Eucharist will be celebrated in a proper way without giving in to all the distractions that are associated with the preparations.”
St. Mary of Stamford was among 30 parishes that resumed public worship inside the church buildings. On May 29, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano announced the beginning of the Phase 2 of the plan to return to Mass inside churches on June 13-14, after each pastor submitted a re-opening plan to the diocese.
Indoor weekday Masses, Funeral Masses and Nuptial Weddings will also resume inside churches in parishes prepared to re-open in a safe and reverent manner. Given the limited seating capacity required for social distancing indoors, the bishop said parishes may continue to offer Mass outdoors for up to 150 people.
He also gave approval for ongoing parking lot Masses and encouraged pastors to continue live-streaming Masses for those who are unable to get out. The dispensation of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass for all those who are vulnerable or concerned about their health or the health of loved ones will continue until further notice.
Father Falla said despite the restrictions, the Catholic Church has never been closed. “Our temples have been closed, the buildings have been closed to the public, but the Church has never been closed,” he said. “We have been offering sacrifices to God daily and in prayer so we need to make the distinction between the Church being closed and a building that has been closed. Often times people think of the Church as a building.” He said he was delighted to finally be able to open the doors for public Mass.
In his homily, Father Falla said, “When the Lord gives himself to us, he gives himself completely. He reserves nothing for himself, not even his blood for his blood is given to us. He sheds his blood for the salvation of the world and the remission of sins. He doesn’t save his own body, he gives his body to us, so that you and I can be members of one body, his own….When you and I receive Holy Communion, we publicly declare that we are in common union with God and the Church. There is no Church without Christ and there is no Christ without the Church.”
Father said that if we want to receive Holy Communion, we must be in the state of grace, “in the state of friendship with God and union with him.” If we fall out of the state of grace through mortal sin, it can be restored through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He reminded the congregation that “He who gives himself completely to us wants for us to give ourselves completely to others and to the Church.”
He urged them to encounter Christ in the Eucharist and continue to increase in devotion to the Lord in the Eucharist, reminding them the Blessed Sacrament is exposed every Sunday at St. Benedict from 8 am to 8 pm for adoration and prayer.
After Mass people approached Father and expressed their gratitude and appreciation that public Masses had resumed.
Yulisa Vivieca and her daughter Ashley Peralta attended the 8 am Spanish Mass at St. Mary. “It was amazing, it felt good,” Yulisa said. “We have been at home and kept praying but to be back in church and feel the energy of the people was amazing. We even had our temperatures taken.”
Ashley agreed and said, “It was really nice and I enjoyed it. We plan to come back again.”
At the side entrance of the church, Stefania Canneto, administrative assistant for Father Falla, was working at a registration table with Mary Catherine Herbert, checking people off the list of pre-registrations as they entered. Preparing for the Masses at St. Mary and St. Benedict required hours of work to set up the pews with tape and signs.
Vigil Masses were held at St. Benedict on Saturday with a 4:30 Mass in English and a 6:30 Mass in Spanish, she said. On Sunday, St. Mary celebrated an 8 am Mass in Spanish, a 10 am Mass in English and a noon Mass in Spanish. A group of almost a dozen volunteers called the “Welcome Group” assisted Stefania at both churches.
Mary Catherine said she voiced concerns to Father on Saturday that public Masses might be starting too soon, but her worries were allayed when “I saw all those people in church who were very happy to be there again.”
A lifelong member of the parish and a graduate of St. Mary School, she said, “I was definitely happy to receive the Eucharist, so happy I almost wanted to cry.”
Sharon MacKnight, the parish photographer who has been a member of the church for 30 years, said the Vigil Mass on Saturday was the first she has attended since mid-March and that she was so moved, she cried to receive the Body of Christ again.
“As Father says, you don’t need a building to go to church because God is with us, and people have been coming all along to pray and light candles.” Even though there were no public Masses, St. Benedict was open for Eucharistic adoration and Mass was live-streamed from that church.
Sharon walked to the front of St. Mary, where a shrine to Our Lady of Grace had been erected in the foyer, looking out onto Elm Street. The statue of Our Lady was surrounded by flowers and candles as people knelt on the floor and prayed to her. Sharon said the doors are open from 7 am to 7 pm and that whenever she drives by the church, someone is there, praying to the Mother of God.