‘Drive-in’ Mass in parking lot feeds faith, fellowship, despite sudden storm

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when my church emailed worship services were resuming — in the parking lot, radios tuned to 88.1 FM. Communion brought to you in your car. My first ‘drive-in’ Mass was marked by a sudden downpour.

SHARE ‘Drive-in’ Mass in parking lot feeds faith, fellowship, despite sudden storm
DRIVEINMASS_072720_39.jpg

Cars line up in six rows during a drive-in Mass at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church on 806 Ridge Ave. in Evanston, Sunday, July 26, 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when my church emailed that worship services were resuming.

With attendance restrictions, how would they accommodate a robust parish of 3,000+ members, when prior to COVID-19, there were few empty seats on a Sunday?

It was “Drive-In Mass.” In the parking lot. Pastor, musician and lectors under makeshift awnings. Radios tuned to 88.1 FM to hear a service happening outside in front of you.

Aisles of hands outstretched as Eucharistic ministers walk between cars; first, a spritz of sanitizer, then edifying Communion.

Logo for the Chicago Chronicles

“We began on Father’s Day, with a Spanish Mass as pilot. The week after, we added English Mass, and since then, have done it every week, come hell or high water,” said the Rev. Joseph Tito, pastor of St. Nicholas Church, at 806 Ridge Ave. in Evanston.

“The water, of course, was last week,” he quipped, referring to the first such service I attended, which was punctuated by a thunderstorm erupting just before Communion.

As Catholics, my mother and I had bemoaned the pandemic’s separation of the faithful from their sanctuary. We got what we needed from worship services online. Yes.

But we sorely missed Communion, the consumption ritual of the Last Supper.

We were buoyed in June when the Archdiocese of Chicago moved into Phase 2 of its reopening plan, allowing churches to hold services with 20% of seating capacity, with guidelines including masks, social distancing, sanitizing, etc.

Mom’s South Loop parish, Old St. Mary’s Church, at 1500 S. Michigan Ave., started taking reservations, first come, first served — as required by the archdiocese to monitor attendance and maintain records for contact tracing in event of a COVID-19 case.

Mom and I contemplated then decided against returning — like so many faithful.

“We’re doing social distancing, sanitizing and disinfecting before and after. Yet some people are still not comfortable even being inside a building,” said Tito, his comments reflecting data showing church patronage remains down by around 40%.

“So the drive-in Mass works for now,” he said. “It allows us to have more people, limited only to the number of cars you can have in your parking lot, and we have quite a few spaces.”

The United States continues to grapple with a surge in infections — on Friday, hitting more than 73,700 new infections, just short of its previous single-day record for new cases. Its 4.2 million confirmed cases led the pandemic outbreak globally, followed by Brazil and India. The U.S. also leads with 146,500 deaths, followed by Brazil and the United Kingdom.

Illinois currently stands at 171,424 confirmed cases as of Sunday, and 7,398 deaths.

Outbreaks spiraled after states lifted pandemic restrictions in June, with many linked to churches — both those that defied lockdowns and precautionary guidelines, and those that rigidly followed them, according to a New York Times database pegging more than 650 cases to nearly 40 churches across the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

But while worship services online can adequately feed the soul, it cannot provide the Communion experience.

“The sacraments have to be celebrated in person,” notes Tito.

DRIVEINMASS_072720_28.jpg

Rev. Joseph Tito hands out bowls of communion wafers during a drive-in Mass at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The Last Supper, Calvary and the Resurrection are right there when we celebrate Eucharist. It’s that sense of bringing the past into the present. Not just remembering. The present must be the physical reality,” he said.

“Drive-in Mass also provides fellowship — seeing other people through their car windows, hearing lectors’ voices, interacting with Eucharistic ministers. It’s that closeness we can get without taking the next step into the church building,” Tito said.

“We’ll continue it as long as the weather holds up.”

At my first drive-in Mass, the weather did not.

It had drizzled that morning, during 9 a.m. Mass, more wind than rain, so that Communion wafers were blowing out of shallow bowls. But it immediately cleared up.

Deeper bowls solved the wind problem during 11 a.m. Mass — but not the downpour.

Just as Tito began the liturgy of the Eucharist, the skies opened up. A slow drizzle, then steady, plowing rain. Paper blew asunder. Tito struggled to bring wet altar items under the awning, give ministers Communion, fill their bowls for distribution.

Parishioners in some 30 cars watched through synchronized windshield wipers.

Row after row of cars. The ministers walked quickly. Car windows came down. Spritz of sanitizer. The Eucharist. Windows back up. Final blessing from the pastor. Car horns rising in a crescendo of gratitude to eight soaking wet ministers.

“We made it through,” said Tito, whose church will change drive-in Mass times to 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sundays in August, to try to finish before the heat grips the day.

“Of course, with the cold weather, there will come a point where we can’t do it anymore. Hopefully, we’ll be able to be in the church by then,” said Tito. “Our faith compels us. We find a way. For as St. Paul said, nothing ‘shall be able to separate us from ... Christ Jesus our Lord.’”

DRIVEINMASS_072720_35.jpg

Rev. Joseph Tito speaks with a churchgoer during drive-in Mass at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, 806 Ridge Ave. in Evanston, on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Latest
Mayoral allies and critics alike again condemned the crackdown as a desperate response that will have no impact on an outbreak of youth violence downtown — but signed off on it anyway.
Joseph Kromelis, 75 — a homeless man well-known for walking the streets of the Loop — suffered third-degree burns over 65% of his body.
Here’s a simple call-to-action for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others: Ask a child or teen what they are doing once school lets out, then help them apply to one of the city’s many programs.
The rise in racial hate crimes, white nationalism and voter suppression will pave our way out of democracy if we can’t achieve some consensus on race and racism
A Chicago Children’s Choir concert, the Sueños Latin Music Festival and the kickoff to Chicago Dance Month are among the exciting events in the week ahead.