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December 20, 2009

No room at the inn? More people, less space What do parishes do when crowds for Christmas Mass fill to overflow

By Michelle Martin


For many Catholics, especially those belonging to large parishes with lots of young families, the experience Mary and Joseph had arriving in Bethlehem rings true on Christmas Eve.

But instead of finding no room at the inn, they are finding no room in the pews, especially for Christmas Eve vigil Masses, often organized as special children’s liturgies, in which Catholic school or religious education students take part in a nativity pageant, read the Scriptures or participate in other ways.

This year, with the archdiocese inviting Catholics back to church as part of the “Catholics Come Home” initiative, the issue could be more acute, but pastors and other parish staff say too many people wanting to come to Mass is a good problem to have.

Mass options

Father Ron Mass, the pastor of Incarnation Parish in Crestwood, said his parishioners have a choice of two Masses at 4 p.m. Christmas Eve. The one held in the church is the “children’s Mass,” and the one held in the adjoining Bernardin Center is a traditional vigil Mass.

“So if you don’t want the children’s readings and all of that, you can go to the one in the Bernardin Center,” said Mass, who celebrates the children’s Mass and traditionally uses a real infant to illustrate the incarnation.

Of course, there have been years when some of the congregation in the shared vestibule didn’t really know which Mass they were part of, Mass acknowledged.

Practical steps

St. Joseph Parish in Libertyville also holds simultaneous Masses at 4 p.m. Christmas Eve to accommodate the largest congregation of the two-day holiday, with liturgies planned for the church, which seats 1,000 people, and the parish’s Koenig Center.

This year, with Catholics Come Home commercials hitting the airwaves eight days earlier, the parish is taking a number of practical steps to make newcomers feel welcome.

More greeters and ushers will be assigned for the Christmas Eve Masses, said pastoral associate Sue Lehocky.

Outside, people will be stationed in the parking lots to help those unfamiliar with the layout to find the church doors, which are somewhat hidden — signs have been ordered, but will probably not be installed by Christmas — and regular Mass-goers who are able to are asked to use the rear parking lots, leaving the more spaces in front open for visitors.

Those might be people who still identify themselves as Catholic but only come to Mass a couple of times a year, on major holidays or people who have left the church and want to check it out somewhat anonymously before making contact with a parish office, Lehocky said.

Other adjustments

St. Edna Parish in Arlington Heights will have only one Mass at 3 p.m. Christmas Eve, said Father Jerome Jacob, the pastor. In past years, a 1 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass has been popular, drawing up to 1,400 people, but this year, parishes were asked to have their vigil Masses later in the day, Jacobs said.

To accommodate crowds, there will be video screens and audio in the gathering area, the community room and in the parish center, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion will bring the Blessed Sacrament to worshippers who cannot be accommodated in the church itself, Jacob said.

While the early Christmas Eve Masses have been geared toward families with kids in the past, Jacob said the parish will minimize involvement from the parish children this year to encourage families to spread their Mass attendance out among the many services offered on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Some of those services, especially Midnight Mass, are already crowded, Jacob said, but that’s hard to avoid on a day when families like to attend Mass together.

“There are expectations in some families,” Jacob said. “People want to make Mom happy, so the whole family comes together. And the fact that the family is here at Christmas shows there still is some connection to the church. We do our best to make people feel welcome, but when your building is filled beyond capacity, it’s not ideal.”

But it’s better than having an empty church, Incarnation’s Mass countered.

“People find an empty church discouraging,” he said. “They like it when it’s crowded. There’s energy.”