Archbishop Nelson Pérez distributes holy Communion during a Sept. 11 Mass at St. William Parish in Northeast Philadelphia. A new archdiocesan initiative entitled “Nothing Compares to Being There,” set to be launched on the First Sunday of Advent (Nov. 28), will encourage faithful to resume in-person attendance at Mass. (Sarah Webb)

A new initiative is inviting faithful throughout the Philadelphia Archdiocese to return to the in-person celebration of Sunday Mass.

On Nov. 28, the First Sunday of Advent, the archdiocese will officially launch “Nothing Compares to Being There,” a multifaceted effort to actively encourage Catholics back to the pews after months of gradually waning COVID restrictions.

Through an array of primarily digital communications, the initiative stresses the Eucharist, as the Body and Blood of Christ, is “not something we can experience virtually,” wrote Archbishop Nelson Pérez in a letter announcing “Nothing Compares” on Pentecost Sunday (May 23). “Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is real and our personal presence is required to receive it.”

Such intimacy with Christ “is not possible … in any other way,” said Father Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship, which is spearheading the “Nothing Compares” effort. “As (Jesus) comes to us in such a personal and intimate way in the holy Eucharist, in the Mass, so our Christian response, our Christian duty, is to be present to him in such a personal and intimate way as well.”

A 16-month COVID-related dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation was lifted by Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops Aug. 15. The Centers for Disease Control report that as of Nov. 4 some 68.1% of persons age 12 or older in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against COVID, while the Pennsylvania Department of Health states that 73.3% of residents age 18 and older have been fully vaccinated.

Now, the “Nothing Compares” outreach is asking pastors to extend individual invitations to resume in-person worship, while reassuring parishioners “they are known, loved and cared for,” according to the initiative’s website.

“Each time I see them, I say, ‘Thank you for coming, and I hope to see you next week,’” said Father James Goerner, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Morton. “That personal touch is really important.”

Pastors are also advised to acknowledge the difficulties presented by the pandemic, and to address several possible obstacles preventing some faithful from returning to in-person worship, such as fear, habit, the convenience of livestreaming and “a lack of awareness anything is missing by not attending Mass.”

A number of “Nothing Compares” resources are directed to that last point in particular – including reflections by Bishop Robert Barron, Father Mike Schmitz, Venerable Fulton Sheen and Father Matthew Biedrzycki, parochial vicar of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

The Second Vatican Council defined the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11), and the celebration of Mass “gives us a taste of what awaits us in the next life,” wrote Father Lawrence Kozak, pastor of St. Thomas More, in a letter to parishioners. “We are created to be enfolded in (the Trinity’s) complete, self-giving love for all eternity.”

(Watch a video from Archbishop Nelson Pérez inviting faithful to return to in-person Mass.)

Every Mass “is our entrance into this triune love,” he continued. “We are indeed privileged to be present at the event, and no livestream, no matter the quality, can substitute for being there.”

Although analysts continue to assess COVID’s impact on church attendance, Pew Research data released in March indicates the nation’s religious congregations are “showing signs of slowly returning to normal.”

That finding bears out an August 2020 Pew study in which only 2% of pre-pandemic regular worshipers expected to permanently shift to online services.

At SS. Simon and Jude Parish in West Chester, an average of “1100 people per weekend” are attending Mass in person, said pastor Father Michael Gerlach.

A handful of seniors, young mothers and families with special needs children remain hesitant to return “because of the virus, not because of faith,” he added.

Father Goerner said his livestreamed weekend Masses draw “maybe between 20 to 25 people,” mostly those “who are really up in years or who are immunocompromised.”

Daily Mass attendance at his parish has “definitely increased,” as has Sunday attendance over the past 12 months, he added.

A return to parish life seems to be boosting in-person Mass numbers, said both pastors.

“Our choir is back at our 10 a.m. Mass, and that’s bringing people in,” said Father Goerner.

“We have a full plate of programs and activities,” said Father Gerlach, whose parish’s 60th anniversary celebration in September, centered around “a huge outdoor tent Mass,” drew hundreds.

Bible studies, faith formation groups and bereavement support meetings have all been “reinitiated,” he said.

Since June 2020, the parish has held 11 blood drives, while its Knights of Columbus council has hosted at least five Bingo evenings drawing an average of 150 players, “Catholic and non-Catholic,” said Father Gerlach.

“We’re moving forward,” he said. “COVID is out there, but it does not dictate or define us. God defines us, Jesus defines us.”

***

For more information and links to pastoral resources, visit the “Nothing Compares to Being There” website.