Dioceses are following states as they open economy, cautiously.
As some states begin to loosen restrictions that were imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, Catholic dioceses and archdioceses are beginning to allow the public celebration of Mass, following guidelines to help prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.
Some dioceses, however, are being more cautious and holding off on public Masses for several more weeks, at least.
In most if not all cases, bishops have reminded their flock that the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days remains suspended. Many issued specific guidelines pastors are to follow in order to reopen churches.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said Wednesday that following Gov. Greg Abbot’s announcement on Monday of his plan to allow a phased reopening of the state beginning on May 1, he is allowing — though not requiring — parishes to resume the public celebration of Masses.
“In light of the Governor’s guidelines for the reopening of other buildings and institutions, including the requirement that social distancing be maintained and that no more than 25% of occupancy be filled, I have requested that parishes not resume public celebration of the Mass until they have implemented policies and procedures consistent with my guidelines, which are a reflection of Governor Abbott’s orders,” Cardinal DiNardo stated. “I have suggested that each parish form a pandemic response team to assist in developing protocols to follow the guidelines. Since massive efforts for the provision of safe and sterile spaces must be undertaken, some parishes may need longer than others to be able to prudently meet this need.”
The cardinal asked that churches begin to open at least for private prayer and that clergy and parishioners wear masks when coming to church. He said that it is still recommended that people, especially those who are 65 and older or are vulnerable, should remain at home and participate in Mass by livestream.
“Even more urgently, if you have any reason to believe you might be sick or exposed to COVID-19, please remain at home as an act of charity to others,” he added. “Since it still will not be possible for all people to come to Mass on Sundays, I ask that the faithful be flexible in considering attendance on a different day of the week. We are still limited in our ability to fully congregate, but the most important consideration is the faithful have access to Eucharist and Confession.”
Bishop Glen J. Provost of Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Tuesday issued a decree that effective May 1, the suspension of public liturgies in the diocese will be lifted.
“The faithful are hungry for the Eucharist,” Bishop Provost stated. He said that pastors may use their discretion while respecting current guidelines regarding the number and manner of attendance “to ensure that the faithful have access to the Eucharist.”
“As we all know, the COVID-19 virus remains a menace to the public’s health,” the bishop said. “However, the State Government has indicated that, in the event of continued improvements, there will be a gradual loosening of restrictions on social gatherings. At that time, State officials hope to allow gatherings of 25% of a building’s maximum occupancy.”
Pastors are to determine, with the assistance of the local fire marshal, an accurate maximum occupancy of their respective churches. Attendees at Mass are to be scheduled in advance, remain 6 feet apart from one another and wear face masks. There is to be no singing or use of missalettes, and churches are to be disinfected after each Mass.
In the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Bishop Peter Baldacchino has been celebrating Mass from a stage located in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for the past few Sundays, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Worshipers sit in their cars in the parking lot, many of them having their windows closed and listening via their car radios. The Eucharist is distributed at each car via ministers in masks and gloves.
Bishop Baldacchino, in a letter to his priests April 15, said he was concerned about an increase in alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic abuse during the pandemic lockdown, and said Mass was an essential service that he wanted Catholics to be able to access.
Simply put, in the midst of financial uncertainty, fear for one’s health, pandemic induced anxiety and confinement to their homes, people definitely need a word of hope
“Simply put, in the midst of financial uncertainty, fear for one’s health, pandemic induced anxiety and confinement to their homes, people definitely need a word of hope,” he wrote, encouraging pastors to provide Mass in a similar way that he does, if possible.
Bishop Austin Vetter of Helena, Montana, allowed the resumption of the public celebration of Mass April 26. He said in a video message Wednesday that about 25 churches were able to do so and that another 20 were expected to this Sunday, altogether representing about half of the parishes and missions in the diocese.
“It was a powerful thing” to once again have a Mass with a congregation at the cathedral, he said.
The Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, said Masses will be allowed again beginning May 4. Archbishop George Lucas is leaving the decision up to pastors, depending on whether they are in areas where there is a high prevalence of infection.
Bishops in other states, however, are erring on the side of caution and continuing to suspend the public celebration of Mass.
“With the lifting of restrictions against certain public gatherings, including religious assemblies, by [Iowa Gov.] Kim Reynolds, members of the faithful are understandably renewed in their hope that they might safely return to church and resume some form of regular parish life,” the bishops of Iowa’s four Catholic dioceses said in a statement Wednesday. “Yet the spread of the COVID-19 disease remains a real and present danger. In particular, the health and survival of the elderly and other vulnerable populations is still a grave concern. Many parishioners and priests fall within these groups.”
In light of the expectation that positive cases of COVID-19 will peak in Iowa in the next few weeks, the bishops said they decided it would be prudent for now to continue to follow the liturgical restrictions they already have in place, including the suspension of public Masses.
“Without an effective vaccine or widespread testing and contact data that justifies a change in course, we simply are not at a place where we can resume our previous prayer practices,” the bishops stated.
The bishops said they will continue to closely monitor the statewide and respective regional situations through the weeks of May and beyond. “When the time comes that we can gather in greater numbers while observing social distance, safe hygienic practices and other precautions without placing one another at serious risk, public Masses and other sacramental celebrations will be allowed to resume,” they said.
“These days are not easy. We understand that many of you are frustrated with this situation; so are we,” they concluded. “We want to celebrate Mass with our parishioners and get back to ‘normal.’ However, we take the advice of Paul: ‘Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer’ (Romans 12:12). Take comfort in knowing that Jesus is with us and with you, our faithful.”
The letter was signed by Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque and Bishops R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, and William Joensen of Des Moines.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine presented a plan April 27 to begin reopening the state. The Ohio Catholic Conference in turn issued a statement April 28 saying the bishops would continue suspension of all publicly celebrated Masses until May 29.