For the last time in what could be weeks or months, those gathered at the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul approached the altar rail. They knelt to receive communion. They bowed their heads together in prayer. And, for the last time in what could be weeks or months, they filled the Roman Catholic church with song.
On Thursday afternoon, the Rev. J. David Carter led the dozens gathered at the basilica in the last public Mass in Chattanooga after the Diocese of Knoxville suspended public worship throughout East Tennessee over concerns about the coronavirus.
Those among the approximately 100 people in the pews said they felt worried about the future, concerned about the ongoing spread of COVID-19 and saddened by the loss of public worship. Several in the pews were crying. Carter encouraged them during his homily, saying the days of uncertainty were not a moment to stop being charitable to one another.
The church is in a unique and trying time, Carter said.
The decision to end Mass comes after weeks of increasing actions by the diocese to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Earlier this month, the diocese suspended the use of communion wine at services, which in the Catholic tradition is typically given by sharing a chalice. On Saturday evening, Bishop Richard Stika granted Catholics an exemption from attending Mass for the rest of the month.
On Monday, though, the bishop notified all priests in the diocese that public celebration would be suspended indefinitely starting March 20.
The Thursday gathering in Chattanooga made the church one of the few remaining houses of worship open in the city as cases of the coronavirus in the county continue to rise. Since the first confirmed case on March 13, the number of confirmed cases in Hamilton County increased to three by Wednesday, including a case of an employee at the nearby University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Luz Loizeaux said the constant barrage of bad coronavirus news can sometimes get to her. Being able to lean into her faith has been especially important lately, she said. But now the church is shutting down.
"We certainly feel sad because we will not be able to participate in Mass in a physical way, but we can continue in prayer," Loizeaux said.
Carter said many in his parish are grieving over the diocese's decision, even if it is the right thing to do for public health.
"A lot of people live their life in faith, thank the Lord," Carter said. "But they've had that rug pulled out from under them."
The priest likened the current moment in the church to the days between Jesus' death and resurrection. People can feel like things have fallen in, but this is a trial of faith, Carter said. When the church services will begin again or how the church will handle the upcoming Easter celebration remain unknown. The faithful are entering an opportunity to deepen their commitment to God, Carter said.
"I don't know what's going to happen in six months, but I'm going to trust the Lord today," Carter said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.