By Michael Rizzo
That was the message to parishioners at the Church of St. Mel in Flushing, Queens, as in-person Sunday Masses returned to the Diocese of Brooklyn for the first time since mid-March.
It was not only a message found on signs in the church vestibule but when Father Joseph Fonti, pastor at St. Mel, used those same words to greet the more than 60 congregants at the beginning of the noon Mass on July 5, he was showered with applause in reply.
According to Father Fonti, the July 4 vigil Mass had an estimated 40 people present. Sunday’s 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. liturgies combined for about another 120 churchgoers. The Masses were also live-streamed on the internet as they have been since March.
Father Fonti — who stayed connected with his parishioners during the pandemic with a weekly Facebook video chat, drive-by blessings outside the church and by processing with the Blessed Sacrament in the back of an open pickup truck on the Feast of Corpus Christi — said the absence of in-person Masses for the past 15 weeks have affected him and members of the parish.
“Jesus never intended the Eucharist to be a dinner for one,” Father Fonti said, referring to saying Mass without the faithful present. “I’ve been dining alone for months and I’m longing for them.”
Father Fonti said parishioners remained supportive during the pandemic but became aware of missing fellow parishioners and their interaction with him as pastor.
“They felt crushed without the church being open,” Father Fonti added. “They wanted the refuge of a place of prayer and contemplation. They were hungry for Mass.”
Carole Vitobella, a parishioner for more than 50 years, said attending the liturgy again gave her a feeling of hope.
“It feels like a normal way of living again,” she said.
The parish followed diocesan protocols for the return to in-person Masses. These included seating congregants not of the same family staying six feet apart, keeping an empty pew between rows of congregants, and requiring all churchgoers to wear face masks. Father Fonti said parishioners called asking if reservations were needed — which they weren’t — and a seat was found for everyone who wanted to attend.
Mary Ann Taibi came to the noon liturgy with her 20-year-old son Charles.
“Here, you are more connected while at home you can lose focus,” Charles Taibi said comparing Mass in-person to watching it on television. “A feeling comes over you in person. The church is about being with people.”
Parishioners Debra and Donald Raffaniello were joyful to be able to attend Mass again and said they were thinking of their son, a nurse on the front lines dealing with the pandemic.
“I’m here to say thanks,” Debra Raffaniello said for her son to be safe. “I’m back in God’s house. I feel more with God when I’m here.”
The noon Mass on July 5 had a holiday emphasis to it. The entrance hymn was “America The Beautiful” and the closing hymn was “The Star-Spangled Banner” which drew enthusiastic applause from the congregation at its conclusion.
“We thank God for our return today,” Father Fonti said in his homily. “We all here today because we believe. I wait for the day when all the pews will be filled but I know it will take time.” He said he had faith it would happen “if we walk together with Jesus.”
“He’s here,” Father Fonti added, “and you know that’s why you’re here.”
Charles and Patricia McEvoy traveled from Our Lady of Angels parish in Brooklyn to attend the noon Mass. They are longtime friends with Father Fonti — he and Charles grew up together.
“I’m thrilled to be back,” Patricia McEvoy said. She added that she missed the comfort and strength that attending Mass with others provides. The couple also said they felt very comfortable with the precautions taken for everyone’s safety.
In his final intercession during the Prayer of the Faithful, Father Fonti asked the congregants to pray silently for one thing they were thankful for during these trying times. When communion was to be distributed, Father Fonti and Deacon Joseph Freda sanitized their hands and donned face masks before distributing the consecrated hosts to those receiving them.
After Mass, Lisa Sacramone, a parishioner at St. Mel’s for 27 years, said receiving communion again was very emotional and filled her with happiness.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed it,” she said.
To read the latest updates regarding coronavirus concerns in the Brooklyn Diocese, go to https://thetablet.org/coronavirus.