Mass is celebrated outdoors at St. Ann’s Parish in Abbotsford, B.C., as people watch from their vehicles. Though it’s an available option in a time of cancelled services, many find the solution wanting. Photo from The B.C. Catholic

Too many challenges with drive-in Mass

By 
  • April 24, 2021

This past Easter Sunday, Fr. Harrison Ayre remembers walking back into St. Peter’s in Nanaimo, B.C., just to gather himself after celebrating the most stressful Mass of his life. Then, just as he sat down in a pew, he heard a bang.

The improvised altar outside in the parking lot had just been lifted up by the wind, turned over and smashed into the candles, the flowers and the platform where Ayre had just celebrated Mass.

B.C. hadn’t allowed indoor Masses since November. So Ayre thought that on this holiest day of the year it was worth the effort to bring people together, outdoors and socially distanced inside their cars, for Mass in the parking lot. It was a huge effort for the parish, involving more than 20 volunteers.

They constructed a platform so that parishioners could see Ayre even from the back row of cars. They covered the platform and the plastic-table altar with a tent in case of rain. They arranged for an FM transmitter so that people could hear the prayers and homily inside their cars. The musicians figured out how to run their microphones into the transmitter.

What they didn’t count on was the wind. Though the altar and the tent were weighted down with 45 kilogram blocks, Ayre still felt the need to deputize four men of the parish to hang onto the tent poles for the duration of the Mass.

It was supposed to be a test run for possible weekly parking lot Masses at St. Peter’s.

“Everyone said to me, ‘Never again, Father,’ ” Ayre told The Catholic Register.

It wasn’t that St. Peter’s parishioners didn’t appreciate the effort or thought the experiment too risky.

“People were touched by the herculean efforts,” Ayre said.

In the wind, Ayre was sure he couldn’t be heard and cut his homily down to two minutes — a rarity for him.

“I preach quite long,” he confessed. “I get going and I can’t stop.”

After Mass people told the priest the sound in their cars was actually quite good. Parishioners appreciated the opportunity to be physically present for the consecration. After months of nothing but streamed Masses, some told Ayre it was the “most memorable Mass they’ve ever been to.”

“It was memorable, but not for the right reasons for me,” he said.

In the Archdiocese of Toronto, parishes have not been experimenting with outdoor, parking-lot Masses, largely because there has been, except during lockdowns, opportunity for limited numbers to attend Mass inside their churches, said Archdiocese of Toronto communications director Neil MacCarthy.

“Parishes have done an excellent job in implementing our WorshipSafe guidelines to ensure the faithful are safe attending Mass,” MacCarthy wrote in an e-mail.

Given the choice, most Catholics will opt for Mass indoors, he said.

“Outdoor Masses present a host of challenges,” MacCarthy said. “Inadequate space for most parishes in the city, the need for sound systems, chairs and other items.”

St. Joseph’s College professor of Liturgy Fr. Warren Schmidt doesn’t object to drive-in Masses on the grounds that the parking lot doesn’t qualify as a sacred space. For Schmidt the issue is the intimate, embodied nature of sacramental liturgy.

“It’s the unity of the physical space,” Schmidt said. “With sacramental worship, any sacrament, you celebrate it in one space — ideally.”

Ayre recognizes the same issue.

“There is something about that close, embodied nature of our faith that is so important,” he said.

Ayre continues with streamed Masses from inside St. Peter’s. Many parishioners on Sundays drive down to the parish and watch the Mass on their phones or tablets, sitting inside their cars. St. Peter’s has set up free WiFi that covers the parking lot. After Mass, Ayre comes out to distribute communion to people in their cars as they drive out.

Others who have been watching from home will drive down to the parish to join the communion line.

Ayre estimates he sees families in about 75 cars per week.

“You can say ‘Hi’ quickly. It keeps you connected with parishioners,” he said.

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