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California Catholics Adjust To Outdoor Worship During Pandemic


Houses of worship, of course, are operating differently these days. The pandemic means services are being livestreamed, in some cases taking place outdoors. In many parts of California right now, worship isn't allowed inside. As CapRadio's Pauline Bartolone reports, that's been a challenge for some urban Catholic congregations.

PAULINE BARTOLONE, BYLINE: In an alley in downtown Sacramento, about a hundred Catholics are gathering for Mass.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, and welcome to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

BARTOLONE: They're not in the 130-year-old cathedral here. They're behind it in a concrete corridor. In normal times, it's filled with cars, delivery trucks and homeless people. Now it's a worship space.

On a recent Sunday morning, Maria Balakshin arrived just before the 7:30 Mass.

MARIA BALAKSHIN: Even though we're in an alleyway, they have made it as attractive as possible. And it's very, very, very special.

BARTOLONE: When COVID cases surged earlier this summer, Sacramento's bishops said Catholics could worship outdoors, but they had to come to church property. Prior to that, many were watching Mass online. Rather than a choir, they have a soloist who stands far away from others.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

BARTOLONE: Parishioners are socially distanced throughout the alley. Some are in a nearby parking structure. Others are in the parking spaces usually used by church staff. They sing faintly behind masks.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Lift up your heart.

BARTOLONE: Father Michael O'Reilly is saying Mass from a fire escape three stories above.

MICHAEL O'REILLY: Do not let anything, any virus, any closed doors, any hunger - nothing should ever get in the way of our relationship with Christ.

BARTOLONE: All told, the service lasts about an hour.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) May your church be (ph)...

BARTOLONE: Afterward, O'Reilly admits the setting is awkward.

O'REILLY: Well, I'm a little afraid of heights, but it's a wonderful place to be, really, in many ways. It gives me a new perspective on the congregation here.

BARTOLONE: O'Reilly says Catholics rarely worship outside in modern times. Canon law says Communion must be celebrated in a sacred space, except in particular circumstances, like when large crowds gather for the pope or to accommodate migrant workers.

SUSAN ABRAHAM: The Catholic understanding of it is once a week, at least, you need to go to a place that reminds you that all creation is created by God and, therefore, holy.

BARTOLONE: Susan Abraham is dean of the Pacific School of Religion in the Bay Area. She's Catholic herself and says the pandemic is a good time to rethink all sorts of spiritual practices.

ABRAHAM: I'm not a fan of fetishizing any particular holy shrine or space as the only kind of - or the purest kind of holiness. I'm willing to say, as a Catholic with an expansive and capacious imagination, that there is more to holiness than what human beings may want to grasp at.

BARTOLONE: During the Mass behind Sacramento's cathedral, some parishioners kneeled on the cement as they worshipped. Maria Balakshin said, in some ways, it's even more spiritual to attend Mass outdoors.

BALAKSHIN: To me personally, it is more intimate. I feel like the people who are here are really true Christians that want to practice their faith.

BARTOLONE: This congregation's prayers may be making this alley more sacred during the pandemic. But when it ends, they'll likely go back to church as usual in the cathedral.

For NPR News, I'm Pauline Bartolone in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.