Photo by Gregory A. Shemitz. See more photos below article.
By Patty Knap
All summer long, Catholics on Long Island have had the beautiful experience of Mass on the beach, with the sand, sea, and sky their church.
For the second year in a row, Father Brian Barr, pastor of St. Mary of the Isle in Long Beach, has arranged for a Sunday 6:30 p.m. outdoor Mass. Each week as word has traveled about the beautiful beach liturgy, the number of congregants has grown, with last count over 1000 people in attendance.
“It’s truly inspiring, being at this Mass. It’s just beautiful,” said parishioner Kathleen Kearney. “It’s awesome to see God’s hands in the ocean and in every holy sermon. His grace is all around us!”
See slideshow of photos below
Father Barr wanted a way to bring the Mass to the people. He hoped especially to reach people who hadn’t been to church in a long time and who, for whatever reason, were unlikely to just go and walk back into a church. “We’re a beach community; our parish is blocks from the ocean, so a beach Mass was a natural idea, but I wanted to keep it reverent. It’s a casual atmosphere, but what we’re doing isn’t casual, it’s sacred,” said Father Barr. “There’s something very powerful in the public nature of it…the guy kneeling next to you you’ve seen around town or he lives around the block. I’m thinking of a guy riding his bike down the boardwalk who hasn’t been to church in years and he comes upon a beach Mass, stops and stays. Or someone who’s been invited to come along with a friend.”
The parish considered having one beach Mass in July and one in August, but decided a weekly Mass from Memorial Day to Labor Day was a better plan to gradually get the word out that the beach Mass was a regular event. They sought out the best music and musicians to add to the beautiful atmosphere.
While people are either barefoot or in flip flops, are wearing bathing suits under their clothes, and are sitting on towels or beach chairs, the beach liturgy is very prayerful. Everyone kneels in the sand at the appropriate time – without any verbal request. Several hundred up on the boardwalk are completely silent, whether they came purposely for the evening’s Mass or just happened to be walking or biking by or sitting on a bench to enjoy the view. Surely not all are practicing Catholics. Several people in wheelchairs are in attendance each week.
The beach Mass calls to mind Matthew 22:9: “Go to the main crossroads and invite everyone you can find to come to the wedding,” and of the New Evangelization Pope St. John Paul called for, bringing Christ to the people.
Beach Mass coordinator Eva Paprocki was ‘volunteered’ this past winter to handle all the details of setting up a weekly public Mass. The beach Mass grew out of needing an alternative place because the church had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
“We’d been having meetings ever since the hurricane (Sandy) about how to encourage people to start coming back to church,” Paprocki said. “Father Brian had only been with our parish two weeks when the hurricane devastated the church and parish hall. He got a small group of us together in someone’s home once a week to talk about ways to support people and show them the church was still there for them. I couldn’t make a meeting one night and somehow I was appointed the ‘beach Mass coordinator’ — something that has turned out to be an enormous blessing for me.
“It started out as a list of chores, stuff I had to do to coordinate the beach Mass. But I just so love it now, it’s a joy to work on. I just can’t express the impact it’s had on me. I get a zillion times more out of it than what I put into it. And it’s interesting because I had been thinking before I got involved in this, that I wanted to find some kind of way to help make the world a better place but I wasn’t sure where I should be. Father Brian’s vision has just been a life-changing experience for me and it’s definitely brought me closer to God.”
About an hour before Mass time a truck arrives with a group of young men, including some seminarians, who drive over from the rectory a few blocks away to set up the altar, crucifix, speakers, music center, a table for bulletins, baskets for collection, etc. City approval for a large public gathering has been taken care. Father Brian arrives by bike, and chats with the altar servers, musicians, and Eucharistic ministers before putting on his robe and processing up to the altar. A center aisle is created on the sand between rows of beach chairs and towels.
Unlike an Easter sunrise beach Mass, common in beach communities but held at 6:00 am when the beach is generally empty, the weekly Long Beach Mass is completely public. Hundreds of people are on the beach, some surfing, some throwing Frisbees, others lounging, with more sitting, walking or biking on the boardwalk as the Mass site is set up. A center aisle is created between rows of beach chairs and towels.
There are numerous reports of hearts touched by the beach Mass. A woman who lives in a building overlooking the beach Mass site has been having Communion brought to her for some time now because she cannot get out to Mass. Now she can be at Mass just by opening her window.
Two women who had been coming to the parish’s outreach program were invited to come to the beach Masses. As a result of attending several times, both have decided to become Catholic.
Kevin Kline and his wife Kerri haven’t missed a single beach Mass all summer, he said. “It’s hard to describe. It’s just beautiful, the sea of humanity before you there to celebrate the Mass. It’s just part of our weekend routine now. Pretty much every weekend we bring someone else with us, and then we have a nice barbeque back at the house after.”
The Klines, along with many other local residents, put beach Mass yard signs in front of their homes announcing the beach Mass day and time. “A couple weeks ago, I’d just come home from the beach Mass and was out watering in front of my house when a neighbor walked by with her dog. She goes, ‘That was so beautiful.’ She went on to tell me that she hadn’t been to Mass in a long time, and that seeing the yard sign about the beach Mass prompted her to come. That was so great to hear!”
“I just can’t describe it. It’s a very different feeling, a very holy experience. It’s great seeing every age and every nationality together worshipping God. I love the beach, and I love the Mass. The combination is spectacular,” offered Diane Reynolds of Garden City.
Sharon McGreevey notes her kids “never give me a hard time about going to Mass on the beach. Father Brian is so inspiring, how he connects the Gospel with everyday life, and speaks to the young and the old. It’s amazing how many young people are coming to these Masses.” Sharon and her family often bike to the beach Mass. A few weeks ago her 11-year-old Connor was digging in the sand most of the Mass. “I was annoyed that he was digging and as we were leaving I said to him, ‘You weren’t listening to the sermon; you were playing in the sand!’ Connor proceeded to tell me exactly what the point of the sermon was — he was listening the whole time!”
Mike McNally comments, “It’s hard to describe what a unique feeling this is. You have the majestic beauty of God’s nature all around, the crashing waves, a gorgeous sunset, as we celebrate Jesus Christ. It’s just so extending the Mass experience.”
Lifeguards go off duty locally at 6 pm. Groups of them have been staying for the 6:30 Mass, throwing on shirts over their bathing suits. One evening four teen surfers pulled their boards up out of the water, threw on t-shirts, and sat down on their towels just before Mass began. They knelt in the sand alongside their boards and joined everyone else in singing and praying aloud.
Two weeks ago Mass-goers had a stunning backdrop just beyond the altar of a gorgeous ocean and waves with an oncoming sunset, when a paraglider appeared. Gracefully ascending and descending, the paraglider appeared to hover above the Mass. Betty McPartland of Stewart Manor found it only added to the Mass. “It wasn’t a distraction! I saw him as glorifying God in another way.”
The beach Mass in Long Beach is already planned for next summer.
Photographer Gregory A. Shemitz captured scenes from the Mass at the beach on Labor Day weekend for the slideshow below.