MIAMI - Like many things since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, South Florida houses of worship have had to make dramatic changes. In the Miami Archdiocese, parishioners don't hold hands as they recite the Lord's Prayer, pews are emptier and the holy water has been put away.
The archdiocese also says that in the earlier days of the pandemic six out of 253 priests tested positive. One of them, Father William Muniz of St. Henry Catholic Church in Pompano Beach, died of COVID-related complications in late July. He was 85.
All but one of the cases, the archdiocese said, occurred after it suspended in-person Masses mid-March and moved services online. Two months later, the archdiocese opted to lift that suspension while still taking precautions to safeguard churches from COVID-19.
"We need to be with one another and so virtual relationships just don't do it," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski. "They're a good stopgap, but they're not sufficient for coming back and encountering, not only the Lord, but encountering one another."
"Christianity is a religion of community," he said.
The same could be said for Judaism, Islam and other religions.
Since Florida is one of the states that considers religious services essential and exempt from social distancing mandates, houses of worship were never ordered by the state to close their doors or to limit their capacities, unlike in states like California, where shutdown orders were unsuccessfully challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, religious leaders were left to decide how to best respond to the crisis unfolding around them.
The Miami Herald learned of churches that continued to meet in person throughout the pandemic. At least two experienced spread of the virus among parishioners, although church officials would not discuss those outbreaks.
The Herald reported last week that a Florida Lauderdale Baptist church pastor, Marcel Metayer, 63, and one of his assistant pastors, Fequiere Esperant, 65, both succumbed to the virus.
While some churches stayed open for in-person worship throughout, many did not, and across South Florida yard signs have popped up like mushrooms after a forest rainstorm, beckoning the faithful to log onto virtual services.