People are returning to in-person worship services at different rates in the Crossroads.

At Our Lady of Victory Cathedral in Victoria, the overflow of parishioners created by social distancing during the height of the pandemic no longer exists. They do not need to move to the Cathedral Center next door to worship because there is room for everyone. Since the restrictions surrounding COVID-19 have relaxed, all the pews are available for seating.

“It’s nice to have the whole family worshipping together under the cathedral roof,” said the Rev. Kirby Hlavaty, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Cathedral. “It makes us one body in Christ again. No more wait list for vaccines really helped people return.”

Hlavaty said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of people who have returned for in-person services. The congregation that gathers is starting to look whole again even though 100% of the pre-COVID group has not yet come back, he continued. Additionally, the church has lost some of its members who died as a result of COVID-19.

The fact that there is a normal “slide” during the summer months when people spend time at the coast or go on vacations might make the numbers seem lower than they really are. Many of those parishioners attend Masses at churches where they travel, so it’s just a matter of where they are.

That said, some parishioners still join the church through the televised or live-streamed Masses. They include some elderly people with health complications who are tentative about returning, and people who need to stay home should stay home, he added.

“Some with risk factors have not yet ventured back, but they are starting to come back,” he said.

Others who have not come back include young families that have just found it more convenient to worship remotely.

“Some young families have grown complacent watching Mass in their PJs in front of the TV,” he said. “That’s the group we want to encourage to bring the children back to the church, to bring their families to reacquaint themselves with God’s house as much as their own houses.”

The televised and live-streamed Masses definitely have enlarged the footprint of the cathedral, Hlavaty said. There has been an increase in viewership, and people around the world have tuned in and even donated to make some of the programming possible.

“A blessing in disguise during the pandemic is that more people know about our Catholic faith because of live-streaming outreach,” he said. “We’ve become much more savvy with technological means of evangelization.”

The church will continue broadcasting the Mass on television as well as the church’s website and YouTube, but there is no substitution for in-person worship, he said.

“We can speak the word of God through social media, which is good,” he said. “But one of my fears is that people will think this is good enough, and it’s really not. It serves a purpose for the homebound and those in nursing facilities, but we still want people to come back.”

The Rev. Wade Powell with First United Methodist Church said from 50% to 60% of the pre-COVID congregation has returned to worship in person.

“We still have sizable online participation in worship, but we’re seeing more and more people come back slowly based on their comfort level,” Powell said.

It is important to realize that not everybody has been able to get the vaccine, Powell said. Some younger people and others with infirmities have not been candidates for vaccination, and the church needs to be sensitive to that fact yet welcoming to them, too, he said.

Some parishioners participate in smaller adult Sunday school classes to stay connected to the church but have not made the leap back to the larger Sunday services.

Powell continued that it amazes him that there are more people participating in worship services now than before the pandemic. When the remote worshippers are added to those who attend in person, the total exceeds the pre-COVID number. The church has picked up some new members through television and the internet.

“The challenge or invitation I extended to the congregation last week was to continue to call people and tell them we miss seeing them,” Powell said. “It’s easy to get into the routine of getting up on Sunday mornings and eating pancakes in front of the computer screen or TV, but you don’t have the same connection. In many cases, it’s just a matter of someone reaching out and saying ‘I miss you, and I would love to see your smiling face.’ We like seeing you online, but we would love to see you in person. Being invitational is very important, whether they are long-time attenders or they have never been physically present at any of the worship services.”

The Rev. Jim DeMent, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said services are getting back to normal now, and the church just asks parishioners who have not been fully vaccinated to wear masks.

The congregation worships and sings and, most importantly, engages in fellowship, but the choir will not start up again officially until the fall, which is typical of any summer, he said.

“Indeed, except for one or two parishioners who are practicing continued caution, which is warranted, we’ve seen a return of the congregation, including visitors,” DeMent said. “You can find God in the closet, but it’s so much easier to find him with friends.”

The services have had up to 400 views on one of the church’s social media sites, so they have become fully invested in streaming, he continued. It has become a permanent part of the ministry.

“We did that as a bridge over COVID, but it proved to be such a wonderful thing,” he said. “We reach homebound people and people on vacation who tune into the services.”

DeMent concluded that while streaming the services has proven beneficial, many congregants have missed worshipping in the sanctuary.

“We have a beautiful organ, so we’re back to hear the organ and sing and greet one another with the peace of Christ,” he said.

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Elena Anita Watts is the features editor for the Victoria Advocate. She covers faith, arts, culture and entertainment, and she can be reached at 361-580-6585 or ewatts@vicad.com.

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