May 21, 2021 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

In this May 20, 2020 file photo, Bishop William F. Medley celebrates Mass with the staff of the McRaith Catholic Center in their makeshift “chapel” in the basement, set up for social distancing. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

Looking back at 2020’s return to public Mass, ‘it feels like it was a dream’


Bishop William F. Medley never did get used to saying “The Lord be with you,” and then responding alone to an empty room, “And with your spirit” during the nine weeks in spring 2020 that public Masses were suspended in the Diocese of Owensboro during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On March 17, 2020, when he celebrated his last public Mass in the tiny Chapel of Mary, Mother of the Church at the McRaith Catholic Center (diocesan pastoral center) in Owensboro, many staff attending the liturgy had wept.

The bishop had gone home and created a small, simple altar in his house. And every day following, with the exception of presiding at private 2020 Holy Week liturgies at St. Stephen Cathedral, the bishop had celebrated Mass alone at his makeshift altar.

The return

On May 15, 2020, Bishop Medley announced that public worship would resume on May 20, 2020, following Kentucky state directives for reopening public worship.

And in the morning of May 20, 2020, the bishop celebrated his first public Mass since the suspension, for the staff of the McRaith Catholic Center.

The chapel was too small to permit social distancing. So the staff created a “chapel” in the large basement, with a portable wooden altar and ambo, folding chairs spaced apart for social distancing, and everyone wearing a mask.

Those two months of solitary Masses were “not what I was trained to do,” said the bishop in his homily that morning. “But I was acutely aware of what a privilege it was that I received the Holy Eucharist each day.”

What had made his private Masses “palatable” was the moment when he received Holy Communion, “and as I paused to offer my thanksgiving,” he kept in mind the gathering on March 17 in the pastoral center chapel.

“And I remember that some of you cried, because when I gave you the Body of Christ… you knew that, well, we didn’t know,” he said. “That was the thing. I could not have guessed that it would be nine weeks or 10 weeks. That wasn’t on my radar at all.”

Looking back

Even after public liturgies resumed, the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched longer than Bishop Medley could have ever imagined.

Speaking to The Western Kentucky Catholic on May 20, 2021 – one year since public worship resumed – the bishop said it is hard to remember that span of two months, of Mass without other people.

“It seems kind of like it was a dream,” said Bishop Medley.

However, he still recalls “the joy when we could go back to Mass together – even with such restrictions.”

“Thank God for livestream,” he said, acknowledging its importance throughout the pandemic for those who could not yet attend Mass in-person. 

But the bishop said he has felt more joy with each restriction that has been lifted so far, as COVID-19 cases decrease across Kentucky and the United States as a whole.

“Obviously, we’re looking at June 11 as the governor’s date for the lifting of most compulsory restrictions,” he said. He also said he is in communication with diocesan leadership about how these changes will be handled.

Another reason for joy was on May 19, 2021, when staff reconvened for Mass in the chapel for the first time since the pandemic struck – following the CDC’s May 13, 2021 recommendations that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance.

Lauren Johnson, the diocese’s co-coordinator of the Office of Worship, said she never imagined that “we would be having Mass in the basement for so long.”

“Although we moved back into the chapel this week, the basement area where the altar and ambo were set up for Mass still feels like a sacred space for me,” said Johnson, “because of all the hardships and blessings we offered there together in the Mass as a staff during this unusual time of pandemic.”

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Rachel Hall
Layout |  Rachel Hall
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