By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
For Marie Schad, it is always important for her to attend Christmas Mass. Perhaps never more so than this year – during a raging pandemic that has claimed so many lives, she noted.
“In the pandemic, we need to pray for all those people who are sick or have died,” Schad said.
As she sat by herself in a pew at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sea Isle City on Christmas morning, Schad thought of an elderly friend who died from COVID-19.
“It was very sad,” Schad said. “I visited her in a nursing home and a week later her daughter called to say that she needed our prayers. A week later, she passed. We couldn’t even attend her funeral because of the pandemic.”
The coronavirus crisis overshadowed the Christmas service at St. Joseph’s, creating a more somber atmosphere at a time when Christians are normally joyously celebrating the birth of Jesus.
However, with the coronavirus vaccines coming on the market now, there was also a feeling of hope among the parishioners and St. Joseph’s pastor.
Schad, who lives in Sea Isle, was among about 50 worshippers who attended the 10:30 a.m. Christmas Mass in a church that holds about 1,000 people.
Those who attended the service sat far apart – unless they were family members – to observe social distancing.
Every other pew was closed to create extra space between the worshippers. Everyone was required to wear protective masks. Bottles of hand sanitizer were placed throughout the church.
Father Perry Cherubini, pastor of St. Joseph’s, removed his mask only to deliver the Christmas sermon. He put his mask back on to give the worshippers Holy Communion, placing the wafer in their hands instead of their mouths as a precaution against COVID-19.
During his sermon, Father Cherubini referred to the suffering caused by the pandemic, but sought to comfort the parishioners by telling them of the joy created by the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago.
Quoting from scripture, he repeated the words of the angel of God who spoke to the shepherds after Christ was born: “Do not be afraid.”
Father Cherubini said the message of Christmas and the birth of Jesus is one of hope, reconciliation and salvation, even in a world reeling from the pandemic.
“We’re so used to being in control of things. But this pandemic puts us in a situation where we don’t have that control. Do not be afraid,” Father Cherubini said.
He continued, “To the sick and the suffering, the lonely and lost, to all those who feel that maybe God has forgotten you, to those who feel abandoned to the dark night, do not be afraid. To those who lost someone they loved, to the father without a job, to the children torn apart by divorce and separation, do not be afraid.”
Father Cherubini said that the words spoken 2,000 years ago – “A savior has been born for you” – continue to resonate today and should give hope to “a troubled, frightened world.”
“Because even in this darkest of nights, there is light. A savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. Here is your hope. Here is our hope,” he said.
He spoke from an altar beautifully decorated with white and red poinsettia and wreaths and Christmas trees trimmed with white lights.
Live music filled the church by a group consisting of Judi DiBabbo, her daughter, Ava, 16, and her sons John, 14, and Michael, 8.
Judi DiBabbo said she sang at St. Joseph’s as a child and was excited to return to the church with her children to play during Christmas Mass.
“It’s the most important time for being here,” she said. “We’re very glad to be here.”
DiBabbo, who lives in Seaview, is the daughter of Mike McHale, a leading member of St. Joseph’s and a former Sea Isle mayor.
She plays guitar, while Ava is the group’s organist and John serves as drummer. Michael joins the rest of the family in singing.
Michael noted that he was happy to finally be able to sing again in church following the COVID-19 shutdown.
“Since the coronavirus started, this was the first time I was able to sing in church,” he said, smiling.