Imploring Catholics of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to return to the celebration of Mass in person, Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez launched a major initiative for that purpose on Pentecost Sunday, May 23.
He described the initiative, titled "Nothing Compares to Being There," in a letter to all Catholics in English and in Spanish and to participants at an 11 a.m. Mass on the feast day at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.
For more than a year, Catholics, like everyone else, have had to abide by inconveniences such as not being with one another in person or easily seeing the faces of loved ones and friends due to face masks, guidelines meant to protect one's safety and that of others as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic rampaged across the globe.
Now the need for those practices to protect the common good, backed by government health regulations, are easing as more people become vaccinated against the coronavirus.
"Nothing Compares to Being There" marks the clearest sign yet, and at the top of the list for most Catholics, that the convenience of livestreamed Masses and the necessary practice of spiritual communion will soon give way to full participation in worship together as parish communities, face to face.
While the push for in-person attendance in parishes will begin in earnest in September, most restrictions on worship at Sunday and daily Masses including church capacity limits, social distancing and wearing face masks are beginning to lift.
According to guidelines issued by the archdiocese, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass remains in effect, even as roped-off pews become a thing of the past.
Parishes in suburban Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties will see all restrictions lifted May 31. Parishes in the city of Philadelphia will follow June 11.
The importance of drawing people back to the sacred liturgy comes from the words of consecration at Mass, in which Christ's body is "given up for you," and his blood "poured out for you."
"As Catholics, we believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ," Archbishop Pérez wrote in his letter. "Such a precious gift deserves our reflection and appreciation. It's not something we can experience virtually. Christ's presence in the Eucharist is real and our personal presence is required to receive it."
The archbishop noted that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the routines and habits including of Sunday worship changed for everyone. Initially no one could attend Mass except via livestream, and for the past several months people have been able to return to churches in person while observing precautions.
But attendance at most parish Masses has been at reduced capacity, in some cases dramatically so. That may reflect people's fears of virus transmission among crowds, or perhaps an over-reliance on the convenience of livestreamed Masses.
Archbishop Pérez admitted that Masses livestreamed by most of the archdiocese's churches were "helpful" during the pandemic, but they should not be a substitute if an individual's ongoing health precautions do not preclude personal attendance.
"Now, as the pandemic wanes and restrictions are lifting, I invite all the faithful of the archdiocese to make their way back to the in-person celebration of the Mass," Archbishop Pérez wrote.
The newly announced initiative, he added, "will involve the entire archdiocese and feature an invitation for everyone to recognize more profoundly the irreplaceable need to be in person for the celebration of Sunday Mass."
During the summertime, parish leaders across the archdiocese will invite their fellow parishioners back to Mass slowly and prepare a "heartfelt invitation" ahead of the concerted push for renewed attendance at Mass in September, according to the archbishop's letter.
Until then, Archbishop Pérez encouraged everyone to "come home to the in-person celebration of Mass" because, as he wrote, "Nothing compares to being there."
Pennsylvania's Department of Health will lift COVID-19 mitigation orders, except masking, effective May 31. The masking order itself will be rolled back when 70% of the state's adults have been fully vaccinated.
The state's current guidelines on masking mirror those of the Centers for Disease Control, which permit fully vaccinated persons to engage in some activities mask-free.
After churches reopen according to archdiocesan guidelines, hard surfaces in church buildings need not be sanitized in the vigorous manner most parishes adopted throughout the pandemic.
Occupancy can be extended to "100% capacity," said Father Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship and rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.
He also said that "all signs and labels suggesting distancing can be removed."
However, personal sanitation should continue to be observed, he said, and people should be "mindful of washing their hands, staying home if they are sick, and not unnecessarily interacting with others."
Choirs, hymnals and worship aids may be implemented "without any restrictions," according to the latest directives, and holy water may be reintroduced since "most evidence suggests the virus does not live in the water," said Father Gill.
However, the distribution of the precious Blood "continues to be suspended until further notice," along with the sign of peace, he said -- and alternate forms of the gesture, such as "waving, using the peace hand gesture, and blowing kisses" are to be avoided.
Catholics "are free to receive holy Communion in the hand or on the tongue without stigma," said Father Gill, and the mode of reception -- along with face masks, or lack thereof -- should not become a point of contention in parishes, he emphasized.
There will be "no vaccination checkpoints when people come to Mass (or) holy Communion, or participate in any other sacred liturgy in a church," he added.
Meghan Cokeley, director of the archdiocesan Office for the New Evangelization, said church teaching "is very clear that vaccinations are a matter of conscience ... and cannot be mandated."
She made the comments a May 19 webinar with clergy and pastoral leaders that she co-hosted.
With "a return to the typical celebration of the sacred liturgy" in view, parishes should prepare for in-person worship with a new fervor, Father Gill said.
While livestreamed liturgies have garnered thousands of views throughout the pandemic, "numbers have plummeted over the last few weeks," he said, and pastors "need to look at weaning away" from such broadcasts in favor of in-person worship, which he described as "irreplaceable."
The "prudent and cautious" approach taken by the archdiocese in response to the pandemic should not obscure the fact that "the whole experience (of Mass) is incarnational," said Father Gill. "The commandment of Jesus (is) to eat his body and drink his blood in person."
Contributing to this story was Gina Christian, senior content producer for Catholic News Service.