New COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced Dec. 10 will not affect religious congregations, including the celebration of Christmas Masses in Catholic parishes of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The archdiocese offered more information on Christmas liturgies in a new document Dec. 11. A new episode of the archdiocese’s Arise webinar series will offer clarifications and answer participants’ questions on Wednesday, Dec. 16 from 10 to 11:15 a.m. Those who register here can join the discussion with archdiocesan leaders or view a recording later.

The governor’s orders, which go into effect early Dec. 12 through Jan. 4, specifically exempted houses of worship. Nevertheless, archdiocesan protocols on congregants’ use of face masks, cleaning of churches between usage and social distancing among people in church – sitting in every other pew, for instance — remain in effect since they were implemented in October.

The directives at that time not only emphasized the protocols put in place last spring following the resumption of public Masses after the initial quarantines of the pandemic, they set guidelines for the celebration of Christmas Masses on Thursday, Dec. 24 and Friday, Dec. 25.

Most elderly people, those in ill health and many others have refrained from coming to church and instead have watched the Mass on television or via livestreamed video on the internet, including from their own home parish.

(See a list of livestreaming Masses here, the times of Masses at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul here and read about a prayer for spiritual communion here.)

Those Masses will continue to be celebrated online for Christmas. But there are more ways for people to celebrate from home, according to Father Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship and rector of the cathedral.

“Everyone recognizes that this is going to be a very different Christmas,” he said. “All of us should be in church and encountering our Lord in the holy Eucharist, but it’s not going to happen.”

He suggested Catholics at home read the Christmas Gospels, have a prayer service around the Nativity scene or pray the joyful mysteries of the rosary together, which focus on the birth of Jesus.

“I think we really have to encourage the domestic church to do more than just livestream the celebration of Mass, to actually pray together,” he said. “There’s all sorts of things people can do at home, which we should encourage them to do.”

In addition, “we need to develop a hunger for when we come back to church and having a holy day like Christmas when we’re not able to celebrate the way we usually do,” Father Gill said.

The absence of one’s physical presence at Mass “should encourage Catholics to long to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ in person,” he said.

Archbishop Nelson Pérez has given permission for priests to celebrate as many Masses as needed so parishioners can maintain social distance on both days of the feast of the Nativity.

The archdiocesan guidelines allow Christmas Eve vigil Masses to start as early as 2 p.m.

Although the state had earlier set a limit of 75% of seating capacity in a church for safe social distancing, few archdiocesan churches have reached that limit and only the largest parishes have scheduled either extra Masses or added them in other spaces such as a school hall or auditorium, Father Gill believes.

(See a directory of all archdiocesan parishes for contact information at your local parish.)

Sacred music is dear to most Christians during Christmas, but the COVID pandemic has put a damper on singing beloved hymns and carols this year.

All churches will feature only one cantor and an instrumentalist singing only the antiphons and the sung parts of the Mass. Choirs are prohibited, except for small, socially distanced scholas.

Of course, if instrumentalists play Christmas hymns as prelude or postlude selections, impromptu singing may naturally break out in a congregation, if in subdued fashion with, of course, masks worn properly.

The birth of Jesus at Christmas will be celebrated by the faithful this year, regardless of the circumstances.

“It’s a reminder to us to focus on Jesus above all,” said Father Gill. “Jesus was born for us not to forget him but to remember him and all that he asks of us.”

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All information on COVID directives from the archdiocese are available on the website of the Office for Divine Worship.