Parishioners taking part in an outdoor Mass kneel on the frozen ground of the parking lot at Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal. Photo by Peter Stockland

Cold air Masses bring faithful together

  • January 19, 2022

Fr. Emanuel Zetino snapped the photograph that has been striking an emotional chord with Canadian Catholic social media users in recent weeks.

Zetino stood on a rectory balcony at Montreal’s Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral and captured the uncommon overhead image of approximately 100 Catholics, young and old, reverently kneeling on the snow and ice in the church parking lot during the liturgy of the Eucharist.

“For me, seeing people kneeling in the snow during the consecration says, no matter if we are inside or outside, it is the same God, the same Lord who is present in the holy sacrifice,” said Zetino.

As of Dec. 31, outdoor Masses are the only option for communal faith celebrations in Quebec. And recent weeks have seen the faithful flocking to these services.

Outdoor Masses were instituted during Christmas week at the direction of Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine. It was a response to the Government of Quebec mandating places of worship establish a vaccine passport for those taking part in indoor celebrations. Lépine’s pastoral letter The Door of the Manger is Always Open communicated that “in the manger, Jesus is the loving face of God gazing upon humanity, on the vaccinated and unvaccinated of this day.” The archbishop wanted no congregant to be denied access to the Eucharist.

Mary, Queen of the World was the forbearer, but now there are more than 20 churches in the French and English dioceses offering outdoor liturgical services while the indoor ban continues indefinitely.

Deacon Benoit Thibault told The Catholic Register that Lépine assembled the entire cathedral team for a meeting early Christmas week to iron out all the logistics required to properly perform outdoor celebrations.

“The list of items to be secured included: a canopy, open tent, covered platform, large printed Nativity scene, sound system, altar, schedule of celebrants, altar servers and singers, etc.,” wrote Thibault. “Each team member walked away from the meeting with specific to-do responsibilities to take care of.”

Fine-tuning the sound system presented the stiffest challenge out of the gate as the basilica is nestled in the thick of Montreal’s downtown core. Outdoor services have to contend with nearby construction projects and all the various bustling sounds one would hear daily in Canada’s second largest city.

According to Thibault, 80 people attended the first outdoor Mass at 4:15 p.m. on Christmas Eve, celebrated by Lépine himself. The phenomenon has popularized like a gathering storm nearly a month after this debut. Reportedly, nearly 200 Catholics attended Sunday noon Mass in bone-chilling -21 weather Jan. 16. And 12:15 and 5 p.m. weekday services regularly attract crowds of up to 100 people.

Jules Aubé has made a point of attending both weekday and weekend Masses at the cathedral recently. He said it is a “touching” experience.

“It is very touching to see even in this frigid weather, the level of belief in these people and the feeling at various times during the Mass,” said Aubé. “And there are a lot of elderly people braving the cold, people with walking canes.”

These past two weeks have obliged Montreal churchgoers to adjust to the new terrain. Now they bring grocery bags, garbage bags, yoga mats, sometimes even their own mitts and gloves to place on the ice to ensure their pants don’t get covered in grit, salt or slush. At Sunday’s Mass, a family showed up with folding chairs as makeshift pews, which might have been what prompted Lépine to welcome worshippers by joking, “Normally, this is where I say ‘please be seated.’ ” Aubé has also seen a parishioner at a couple of Masses with a shopping cart filled with seven or eight foam surfaces for people who forget to bring their own items.

One of the biggest gifts of these outdoor Masses, said Aubé, is a restoration of the parish communal bond that has perhaps eroded the past two years as social-distancing regulations and social event cancellations has made it very easy for people to keep to themselves more than before COVID-19.

“People are reaching out more to each other to ask them how they are doing, and to make that first step to say hello. With the indoor Masses, people were not really speaking to each other. I think there is more of a witness and recognition of each other as we do these outdoor Masses,” he said.

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