By Jai Agnish
NEWARK, N.J. (CNS) — Tickets for Masses, virtual holiday concerts, video Christmas cards, and drive-by Nativity scenes: It’s beginning to look a lot like a different sort of Christmas.
With COVID-19 contributing to the cancellation of Christmas pageants, caroling and some of the season’s most familiar traditions, many parishes in the Archdiocese of Newark have found creative new ways to engage the faithful this Christmas.
At Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey, every parish household received a gift bag hung on their front door. In it was a Nativity scene Christmas tree ornament, information about the parish and a heartfelt message from the pastor, Msgr. Ronald Rozniak.
“In the world in which we live, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of what’s important in life,” wrote Msgr. Rozniak. “At the top of that list, besides God, of course, is family. As we celebrate a season that has its origins in and on a special ‘Holy Family,’ we here at Mount Carmel are thinking of all of you, our family, the family we call Our Lady of Mount Carmel.”
The parish Christmas concert at Our Lady of Mount Carmel was held in person this year, but due to the pandemic, attendance was severely limited. The event was livestreamed to reach more parishioners, but instead of the entire choir, it featured the parish cantors. The traditional Christmas tree lighting in front of the church followed, but it was handled differently this time.
“We normally march out of the church singing Christmas carols and then gather around the tree and light it right after the Christmas concert,” explained Msgr. Rozniak. This year due to social distancing, parishioners instead watched the spectacle on television monitors inside the church or over the livestream feed at home.
An extended Nativity scene was constructed at the church featuring the life of Jesus. It includes scenes from the Incarnation in Nazareth, the Savior’s birth in Bethlehem, and the Resurrection in Jerusalem.
Parishioners can visit the display in person or watch a narrated video featuring a virtual visit to the Nativity scene online.
This season, parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel were encouraged to share virtual Christmas cards. Families were asked to submit a 10-second video clip of themselves sharing a message or singing a carol.
The virtual messages will air before and after in-person Masses, livestreams, and will be available on the parish website and Facebook page throughout the Christmas season.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” Msgr. Rozniak said in an interview. “I think that will really create that sense of connectedness with the parish. They can sing a carol. They can be dressed in Christmas PJs, around a tree. Whatever they want to do. It will be a Christmas greeting from their family to the parish family.”
The point of all these efforts is to foster greater connectivity with the faithful despite a pandemic that discourages community, Msgr. Rozniak explained.
Connection was a key takeaway for Msgr. Rozniak and his parish from a virtual workshop titled “ReThink Advent and Christmas: An Innovation Workshop!” that was organized by Newark Auxiliary Bishop Michael A. Saporito.
Father James Brown, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey, also attended the workshop with members of his parish staff. His team came up a giant outdoor Advent display and other ideas.
They kicked things off with a communications initiative called “Hearts Connected” in which staff reached out to every parish household with a postcard and phone call. This was a way to check in with parishioners, to pray with them, and also update email addresses.
“One of the things that the pandemic is letting us know is that things are not really going to go back exactly the way that they were,” Father Brown said. “The technology and those avenues of communication are going to be even more important.”
The parish installed four large banners promoting the messages of “Hope,” Love,” “Joy” and “Peace” on light poles in front of the church. On display also are four giant homemade Advent candles made of PVC pipe with glass fishbowl tops that light up using solar power.
“They are really neat looking candles,” Father Brown said. “They’re like 5 feet tall and we happen to have four concrete planters outside on the front steps of the church, so we planted one in each planter.”
Sacred Heart is in downtown Bloomfield across from the town green near the main street where lots of people drive by. The church’s banners, candle, and a large sheet metal Nativity serve as great ways to evangelize to the community, said Father Brown.
“You have everybody at the stop light and at the bus stop looking up, ‘Gee, what are those Catholics up to now?'” he said. “But those simple things are great evangelizing opportunities and I hope that it catches somebody enough to say, ‘Gee, I want to check them out, see what they’re doing,’ and then maybe they’ll stay.”
Christmas Mass draws the highest attendance service of the year, but pastors aren’t sure what to expect this year because of the pandemic and capacity restrictions. Some parishes are adding extra Masses while others are giving out tickets to parishioners in advance.
Nativity Church in Midland Park, New Jersey, has added two Christmas Eve Masses and an extra Mass on Christmas for a total of 10 services. The plan is to livestream two Masses on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas day, said Father George Klybus, the pastor.
The parish recently held its outdoor Christmas tree lighting ceremony, but the Christmas pageant and Christmas concert likely won’t be happening this year.
“There are some things we cannot do because of the restrictions. There are some things that we can alter, and it’s important to be creative,” Father Klybus said.
St. Luke Church in the borough of Ho-Ho-Kus in Bergen County, New Jersey, instituted a ticketing system for its six Christmas Masses this year to help manage attendance. The tickets are free and limited to 100 people per Mass.
The 4 p.m. Christmas Eve service immediately “sold out,” but it was too early to tell if the others will fill up, said Father James Manos, the pastor.
“The other ones are filling up but not like the 4 p.m.,” he said. “We still have a lot of people calling up and saying they are afraid to come. People are getting nervous now again because of the pandemic.”
The noon Christmas Mass will be livestreamed.
Whatever happens, Jesus is still here with us, said Bishop Saporito.
“Whatever that celebration of Christmas will look like this year, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “The truth of the Advent/Christmas Seasons still lives. Jesus became one of us to save us from our sins, to inspire our everyday living and to lead us home to eternity.
“As we reflect on this Christmas season, acknowledging how much this pandemic has impacted us and how hard we are trying to deal with all the difficulties presented by it, let’s remember that there is hope, even in the darkness,” Bishop Saporito said.
“The light that is the Christmas celebration is the hope that Jesus brings to us. Let’s recognize it, embrace it, allow it to guide us as we bring it to others.”