Four days after sending Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington a letter saying “my heart is filled with joy” at the resumption of public Masses in the area, Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated a June 28 Mass at St. Joseph Church in Largo, Maryland.

In mid-March, Archbishop Gregory had suspended the celebration of public Masses in the Archdiocese of Washington in accordance with local government restrictions on the sizes of public gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since late May, Catholic churches began offering public Masses again after restrictions in their regions eased, and Archbishop Gregory has been celebrating Masses again in churches throughout the archdiocese, while continuing to offer a dispensation from attending Mass for local Catholics, who can watch livestreamed or recorded Masses.

In that letter, the archbishop noted, “We have missed your presence at Mass, your friendship, and all the ways you help brighten our parishes and neighborhoods. However, most of all, we have missed seeing our Lord Jesus feed you and strengthen you with His own Body and Blood during these times of difficulty.”

Like other people attending the June 28 Mass at St. Joseph Church in Largo, Maryland, members of this family wore face masks and occupied a pew at a social distance from other worshipers. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Stark reminders of how the pandemic has impacted parish life could be seen in the parishioners volunteering at St. Joseph Church before the Mass, who – following the archdiocese’s recommended safety guidelines -- opened doors for people, directed them to a table with hand sanitizer, took their temperatures, and led them to alternating rows of pews, to sit at social distances from one another. Parishioners had registered online for the Mass beforehand, and all wore face masks. Red tape on the main aisle of the church showed people where to stand from a distance from each other when they would line up for Communion.

But those volunteers echoed what Archbishop Gregory said about what it meant to receive the Eucharist again at their parish church.

“It’s just very spiritual to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord again. We’ve been receiving it virtually all this time,” said Harold Sanders, who was assisting with the check-in before Mass.

Another volunteer, Cherry Neal, said she felt “ecstatic” to attend Mass and receive Communion again.

“I just received it yesterday for the first time since March. My entire being felt different after receiving” the Eucharist, she said.

Peter Methodius-Ngwodo, a grand-knight elect of the parish’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus, said he assisted in the first reopening Mass at the church on the previous weekend. “People were excited to come back and see the pastor and members of the parish face-to-face,” he said.

Another volunteer before the Mass, Robin Davis, noted that St. Joseph parishioners had been watching the parish’s livestreamed Masses since the quarantine began.

“We’ve greatly missed being able to participate in Communion. It’s exciting to get back in here, so we can fully participate in Mass,” she said.

The Mass had the joyful spirit of a family reunion, as parishioners happily greeted each other before and afterward. The opening hymn included the phrase, “Come let us worship the Lord,” and people clapped as they sang along.

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., at right, the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland, welcomes Archbishop Gregory at the beginning of the June 28 Mass. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., who also serves as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish, welcomed Archbishop Gregory at the Mass, later noting that the parish picnic was originally planned for that day but had to be postponed. Also concelebrating at the Mass was Father Robert Boxie III, a parochial vicar at St. Joseph who on July 8 will begin serving as a chaplain at Howard University.

In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted how Americans often speak of someone paying their dues through hard work or by enduring suffering or hardship, but he pointed out how Jesus in that day’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew said His disciples would have to abandon their families, accept their crosses and be willing to lose their lives.

The archbishop said the Eucharist offers a ritual memory of the dues paid by Jesus “so that we all can belong to Him and to one another.” And while some disciples of Jesus become heroes of the faith through martyrdom, Archbishop Gregory said “most of us will become ‘martyrs of the daily grind’ rather than by ostentatious examples of Christian heroism.”

Archbishop Gregory said that daily discipleship of Jesus involves things like fidelity to marriage promises or religious vows, acceptance of the challenges of parenthood, a daily commitment to duty and honesty, and young people “bearing the demands of parents and teachers.” The archbishop said for him, that discipleship means accepting with faith and humility the “sometimes nasty emails and the daunting burdens that come my way as your archbishop.”

“In short, ‘paying our dues’ will be for most of us a slow and usually unspectacular way of faith, hope and love that will permit us all over time to be referred to as His disciples,” Archbishop Gregory said.

The prayers of the faithful included prayers for all those sickened by the coronavirus and for their caregivers, and also for those who have died from the disease. Like other parishes in the archdiocese, St. Joseph has had parishioners who have been stricken by COVID-19 and died from it. St. Joseph Parish has a predominantly African American congregation, and people of color have been especially hard-hit by the virus across the United States. The parish is located in Prince George’s County, which has had the highest rate of coronavirus infections among counties in Maryland, with 18,249 diagnosed cases and 645 deaths as of June 28.

A prayer was also offered at the Mass, asking that God’s love and mercy will guide families, communities and the country in treating all people, no matter the color of their skin or their culture or status in life, with respect. In recent weeks across the country, protests against racial injustice and police brutality have followed cases of unarmed African Americans being killed by police. Archbishop Gregory has spoken out about those issues, as has Bishop Campbell, who serves as the president of the National Black Catholic Congress and who joined a recent protest of Catholic clergy, religious and lay people near the White House.

People pray during the June 28 Mass at St. Joseph Church in Largo, Maryland. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In the weeks since public Masses began resuming in the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Gregory celebrated a May 31 Pentecost Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside in Chaptico, Maryland; a June 7 Mass on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity at St. Peter’s Church in Waldorf, Maryland; a June 14 Corpus Christi Mass celebrated outdoors at Jesus the Good Shepherd in Owings; a June 20 Mass of Ordination at St. Catherine Laboure Church in Wheaton, where the archbishop ordained eight new priests and one new deacon for the archdiocese; a June 21 Mass at Holy Redeemer Church in Kensington; a June 27 vigil Mass at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church in Washington, D.C.; and the June 28 Mass at St. Joseph Church in Largo.

In his June 24 letter to Catholics about the resumption of Masses, Archbishop Gregory wrote, “During this time of social distancing, we have found new habits of prayer and action. I pray that as we return to public Masses, we continue to nurture our lives with the ways we have done in the past few months, incorporating our new habits of increased private prayer, time with our families, and acts of love and kindness toward our neighbors. Each of these new habits draws us closer to Jesus and prepares us to receive Him in the Eucharist.”