By Tony DeGol
Tim Yahner calls himself a brick and mortar man, especially when it comes to his Catholic faith.
Watching Mass on television or praying at home is fine, but for him, nothing beats spending time with God inside the sacred space of a church.
For that reason, he was elated when Bishop Mark announced last week that parishes may reopen church buildings for private prayer.
When the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto welcomed backed parishioners the other day, Yahner was the first one through the door.
“It’s very special to be here,” he said. “I need this.”
All church buildings in the diocese had been closed to the public since Bishop Mark’s directive on April 1 to protect the health of everyone during the coronavirus pandemic. That followed a directive from the Bishop on March 17 suspending public Masses in the diocese.
As the first phase of a four-step plan to reopen churches and gradually resume sacramental life, the Bishop gave parishes the go-ahead to open churches or other parish buildings for private prayer beginning on May 16.
Each parish has designated hours during which the church is open, and all parishes have special seating requirements to ensure social distancing and proper sanitizing. At the Basilica, for example, the pews are entirely blocked and parishioners are asked to sit on chairs spaced at least six feet apart.
At all parishes, the faithful must wear masks, sanitize their hands upon entering, and clean their seat before leaving. No more than 25 people can be present in the church at one time.
“We are following the guidelines given to us,” explained the Very Reverend John Byrnes, JCL, JV, Rector of the Basilica. “The doors are all propped open so people do not need to touch the door knob or handle.”
Despite the safety precautions, the return to churches is a triumph for both parishioners and pastors.
“The church is the home of Jesus,” reminded Father Byrnes. “This is a place where one can spend time before the Blessed Sacrament, and we can’t simply do that in our homes, so it is a unique place because of the presence of the Eucharistic Lord. The church is also a part of the neighborhood, and people miss being able to come in and offer a prayer. I look forward to many people returning here again.”
At Sacred Heart Parish in Altoona, only certain pews are designated for seating to ensure proper distancing. Parishioners were steadily and happily coming back on that first day.
“I really missed coming to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and having that quiet time,” noted Theresa Adams, who was accompanied by her 12-year old daughter, Rebekah. “When you come in, it takes you away from what’s happening in the outside world and you can refocus and figure out what’s important.”
Joanne Straw, a member of Sacred Heart for decades, was thrilled to walk through the doors again.
“I have been waiting and waiting to come back, and I think it is wonderful that we can at least go into church now and say our prayers and tell God how grateful we are that we are able to do this,” she insisted.
During the past several weeks, Straw has watched Mass on TV and prayed the Rosary, which has provided comfort.
“I’m very anxious to receive Communion,” she added.
Phase two of the Bishop’s plan is the celebration of Sacrament of Reconciliation; phase three is the distribution of Holy Communion outside of Mass; phase four is the return to public liturgies.
[Photos: At top, Theresa Adams and her daughter, Rebekah, pray at Sacred Heart Parish; First inset, Basilica Parishioner Tim Yahner visits the parish for private prayer; second inset, chairs are made available at the Basilica to ensure social distancing and proper sanitizing; fourth inset, Joanne Straw prepares to enter Sacred Heart for quiet prayer.]