The ritual had remained the same for centuries.

The parishioner approached the priest, who lifted the pale wafer before the parishioner’s face. “The Body of Christ,” the priest said. “Amen,” the parishioner replied, his or her hands lifted, ready to receive the Eucharist followed by the wine—the blood of Christ.

But even millennia-old rituals, like Catholics’ communion, have had to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

At St. Raphael Catholic Church in Raleigh, Father Phil Hurley walks around the sanctuary with a procession of volunteers who have a new, unexpected—and unofficial—title in the Catholic Church: the Ministers of Hand Sanitizer.

Now, parishioners lift their hands to receive and apply hand sanitizer from a minister. Then, Hurley, donning a facemask and a face shield, approaches each parishioner and places the wafer in his or her hands. The parishioner replies with the customary “Amen,” but waits patiently for Hurley to move at least six feet away to consume the wafer.

“The Eucharist is like the center of our faith, so it’s important to receive it as often as we can, you know—within reason, of course,” Andrew Kaveler, a volunteer during communion, said. “People have probably various woes and worries and depression onset by the pandemic, so it’s especially important to receive the graces that we believe we receive through the Eucharist.”

This adaptation is the result of careful months of planning by the church’s leadership to reopen for in-person services, said Jeff Rice, pastoral associate for liturgy and music at St. Raphael—joining a growing number of houses of worship across the state that are opening their doors to worshippers once again.

Religious leaders are choosing to reopen after the state’s Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidelines recommending houses of worship limit any indoor gatherings to 100 people, or 30 percent capacity.

However, in-person religious services have been under scrutiny recently, after Mecklenburg County Health linked more than 150 COVID-19 cases and six deaths to a convocation event at a United House of Prayer church in Charlotte.

Houses of worship reopening for in-person services have also adapted their religious services to meet health officials’ recommendations—altering rituals and reducing people’s interactions.

Dr. Ayaz Pathan has attended the Islamic Association of Raleigh for nearly 35 years and was a member of the mosque’s reopening committee. He said the mosque usually received 3,000 visitors for Friday prayers before the pandemic. Now, a maximum of 1,200 people are allowed to visit the mosque’s four prayer services.

Visiting the mosque now comes with a few additional precautionary steps, Pathan said. Those steps include registering online and performing wudu—the Muslim cleansing ritual performed before prayer—at home, as the washrooms are closed.

“Obviously, I used to just kind of show it to the mosque prior without having to worry about any of those things, with plenty of bathroom facilities and places to wash before prayer,” he said. “Now, obviously, I walked in with a mask on and a prayer rug over my shoulder, which obviously was not the case prior.”

Whereas visitors could use a shoe rack prior to the pandemic, now worshippers receive a plastic bag to keep their shoes before entering the prayer room. Those who forget their prayer rug receive a plastic sheet to pray on.

For about 30 minutes, the imam delivers a sermon and leads worshippers in prayer. In the main prayer room, masked men of all ages sit, stand, and kneel six feet apart on their own prayer rugs, which rest on top of long green rugs with beige arabesque patterns that decorate the room. Due to the social distancing rules, latecomers pray in the gymnasium directly behind the prayer room.

Sermons are shorter, as are the moments to gather with others after the service: “So sit down, listen to sermons, and kind of leave without a bunch of fanfare,” Pathan said.

Rabbi Lev Cotlar from the Chabad Center of Raleigh described similar procedures at his synagogue, which now receives about 15 people for in-person services compared to the regular pre-pandemic attendance of 50 people.

Cotlar said he’s also cut down his usual 10-minute sermons to about three minutes to limit the amount of time worshippers spend inside the synagogue.

“I try to keep them uplifting and optimistic,” Cotlar said. “And I think people really need that right now. It’s, of course, a time of great anxiety and stress. And so I think an uplifting, optimistic message is just something that people find really, really important right now.”

Cotlar’s is one of few synagogues in the Triangle open for in-person services. For many houses of worship, the decision to reopen has been difficult—leaving many to remain closed, offering livestream services or other programming online.

The Reverend Nancy Petty of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh had even sent out a newsletter message to her congregation informing them about the church’s intention to reopen for a small number of parishioners after months of only online services. However, after the number of COVID-19 cases began to spike again in early October, Petty retracted the decision before the reopening occurred.

“You just can’t do that safely, when numbers are continuing to rise—even with that smaller number, and as large a space as we have,” Petty said. “It’s hard. I have found that it’s very difficult for people who have not seen each other in a long time, particularly church people—it is very hard for them not to go hug, and greet, and get too close to one another when they finally see each other.”

Religious leaders said that despite the public health concerns, the decision to reopen is important to fulfill worshippers’ religious duties and fulfill a need for community after months of isolation.

Pathan said prayer is a pillar of Islam, and attending Friday prayer services is an obligation for Muslims, so the decision to close the mosque earlier in the pandemic was met with pushback.

“So it was a tough decision, I think,” he said. “So it really became very important that when we felt we could safely be open, that we very aggressively looked at those options.”

Pathan said the mosque also serves to create a support system for its congregation, offering people a place to pray, eat, participate in sports activities together, and more.

That sense of community is one that Cotlar said people need “now more than ever,” which has motivated the synagogue to connect with all worshippers through online portals, ensuring that all members feel connected.

For Rice, the safety measures taken during services at St. Raphael have also highlighted the respect community members have for each other and the desire for connection—even behind face masks, shields, and hand sanitizer.

“But actually, our experience is that people slow down—they act more reverently,” Rice said. “They act more reverently for receiving communion because they’re slowing down, they’re being more intentional. And they’re obviously showing much more reverence towards one another.”

This story was published in partnership with UNC Media Hub.

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