Normally every square inch of Holy Rosary Church in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood is packed with people for Mass each year on Aug. 15 -- the feast of the Assumption. Often the celebrant is a bishop with numerous priests concelebrating.
However this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, there was no public Mass or celebration today. Instead, hundreds of people watched the livestream of a private Mass celebrated by Father Don Oleksiak, diocesan administrator. Concelebrants were Father Joseph Previte, Holy Rosary pastor; Father Jonathan Zingales, pastor of Visitation of Mary and St. John the Baptist parishes in Akron; and Father Lou Miola, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Maple Heights and a son of Holy Rosary Parish. Deacon Bruce Battista, who is assigned to Holy Rosary, assisted.
A few musicians – wearing face masks – and singers were socially distanced in the choir loft along with the technician who managed the livestream. Otherwise, historic church that dates to 1908 was empty this year.
“Welcome to this wonderful celebration in honor of our Blessed Mother,” Father Oleksiak said as he began the liturgy.
Father Previte served as lector and according to tradition, Deacon Battista proclaimed the Gospel in Italian.
In his homily, Father Zingales welcomed Father Oleksiak. “He’s half Italian so he qualifies to be here,” he quipped.
Father Zingales shared a story about a priest friend who for many years wanted to go on a cruise. After saving for months, he booked a Caribbean cruise along with his sister and brother-in-law. “He talked about it for months,” Father Zingales said.
Several weeks before the cruise, the priest received a DVD with highlights and information about the trip that helped build his excitement and anticipation.
“What if every vacation came with a DVD about what to expect?” Father Zingales asked. “Or what if you got a DVD before having children to show you what will happen? Sometimes you might not want to know.”
He said God doesn’t give us a DVD, “but the feast of the Assumption gives us a preview of where we can go. This feast day becomes a preview of what the future holds. It’s a good preview of what to expect if we put God first, follow him and avoid sin,” Father Zingales said.
The Blessed Mother “was given a promise of incredible things if she would obey and trust God,” he said, adding that she was free from sin so she didn’t have to pay for sin. As a result, she was assumed – body and soul – into heaven.
“Heaven is not just for church doctors, martyrs and popes. It’s for all of us,” Father Zingales said. The feast of the Assumption is a way to encourage us to follow Jesus closely. “What are we doing about that?” he asked.
“We save and sacrifice for vacations and trips but what are we doing to prepare ourselves for heaven? How much should we be doing to get safely home to heaven?” he asked.
After Mass, Father Oleksiak expressed his gratitude for being invited to celebrate the Mass. He also thanked Father Zingales for his remarks and expressed appreciation for the difficult decisions Father Previte had to make in this unprecedented time. He said the decisions were made “with the love and guidance of the Blessed Mother and out of love for the people.”
In addition to the Mass and daily prayers, the annual celebration traditionally includes a procession with the Statue of the Blessed Virgin that travels through the neighborhood and a four-day street festival along Mayfield Road and on the church grounds. Holy Rosary and Cleveland officials announced in a joint statement on June 19 that the annual street festival was canceled because of the health crisis.
“We are not having anything that could attract a crowd,” Father Previte said, which is in keeping with the guidelines set by local, county, state and federal health officials. Canceling the celebration was a “difficult but necessary decision,” because the health and safety of the volunteers, vendors and attendees is the highest priority, he said.. Festivities take place in a confined area so it would be very difficult to follow guidelines for social distancing. Father Previte said the hope is that the celebration will resume in 2021.
“I want to thank everyone who worked to do many things behind the scenes so this could take place,” Father Previte said of the livestreamed Mass, which was available on the parish and Catholic Diocese of Cleveland websites.
The Blessed Mother is always with us, Father Previte said, adding that she helps to strengthen our faithfulness. “While we are not gathered in person, we are gathered in spirit.”
“We join our prayers with those who went before us and are hopefully in heaven,” he said.