As public officials lift COVID-19 restrictions, bishops prepare parishes for safely bringing the faithful back to church.
Masks, the 6-foot rule, and Communion in the hand are the predominant features that will characterize the Catholic Mass in the coming months, as churches reopen to the faithful and society continues to take measures against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Several dioceses and archdiocese have published guidelines for parishes to follow in order to allow the faithful to attend liturgies once again, some two months after a near total ban. Bishops and their staffs have worked out plans in consultation with civic officials and health experts. Most of the plans follow a “phased-in” approach, beginning with church openings for private prayer and moving on to Mass for greater and greater numbers of people.
In New York state, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo permitted houses of worship to hold services for up to 10 persons, beginning Thursday. The same day, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn held a news conference in a Manhattan church to outline their plans for reopening. At first, churches will be open just for private prayer and Confession. Later, small weddings and funerals will be allowed. Cardinal Dolan said it might be at least six weeks before churches in the archdiocese have public Mass on Sundays again.
Priests will be tested weekly for COVID-19, a move that Cardinal Dolan hopes will reassure church-goers, he said.
New York City was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. In upstate New York, where the situation was not as bad, churches might be able to have Sunday Mass again sooner.
“We will move more slowly,” Bishop DiMarzio said.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz also allowed religious services for up to 10 people. In response, the Minnesota Catholic Conference said that the number was too low and said bishops in the state would give parishes permission to allow attendance of up to one-third of each church’s seating capacity.
In the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., attendance will be limited to 50% of a church’s capacity.
Pretty much across the board, diocesan plans for reopening call for parishioners to wear masks throughout Mass and to sit a safe distances from one another. Churches are to designate pews where individuals and families can sit, and those getting up to receive Communion are being advised to maintain 6 feet from the person in front.
Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in Manhattan, where Cardinal Dolan’s press conference was held, said that parishes would provide masks at the door for anyone who forgot theirs at home.
Pastors will need to find ways to regulate attendance, whether it’s 10 people or one-third capacity, either by setting up ticketing or some kind of reservation system. Speakers at the Manhattan press conference noted that some churches have undercrofts or auditoriums where an overflow congregation might be seated.
Various plans also stipulate that greeters and ushers wear masks and gloves at all times and to hold doors open for arriving and departing worshipers, to eliminate the need for a series of potential virus carriers from touching door handles. Holy water fonts will be empty.
Once inside, the rule of thumb will be “No touch.” Pastors are being asked not to greet arriving parishioners and not to shake hands as they leave. Pews and other surfaces should have been sanitized following the previous Mass, but the pew racks will likely not have missalettes or hymnals — objects where a virus might linger from a previous user. Some dioceses are encouraging parishioners to bring (and take away with them) their own prayer aids.
Also being suspended, at least for now, is the common practice of designated parishioners carrying to the altar the bread and wine to be consecrated.
Collections often will be taken up in a different way, too. A basket won’t be passed from hand to hand down each row. Some churches will see a single collection box placed in a central location where everyone can deposit his or her contribution.
The Archdiocese of Miami included a note about handholding during the Lord’s Prayer — it is not to be done — and almost every diocese made a point to say that any “Sign of Peace” that is offered between worshipers just before Communion should, if it’s included at all, be conveyed by a nod or bow, but never by handshake, embrace or kiss on the cheek.
Many of these practices had already become familiar when the novel coronavirus first started coming around, and before public Masses were suspended. Another such practice — communicants sipping the Precious Blood from a common chalice — will continue to be banned.
As for reception of Communion, in most cases, people are being encouraged, if not required, to receive the Host in the palm before placing it in one’s own mouth. This is likely to be the only time people are able to remove their masks — and in some dioceses, the only time the priest will be wearing one during Mass. The Archdiocese of Newark wants people to present themselves wearing their masks, receive in the hand, step to the side, pull down the mask and consume the Host before re-masking and returning to the pew. It advises people who decide not to receive Communion, for whatever reason, to remain in their pews and pray a “Spiritual Communion,” rather than going up to the priest to receive an individual blessing.
Some dioceses recognized that some people still wish to receive the traditional way, on the tongue. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said that there should be a separate line for such parishioners, and that the priest distributing Communion should sanitize his hands after each person receives.
The Diocese of Trenton, N.J., which has been allowing Masses to be held in parish parking lots if attendees remain in their cars, allows Communion to be distributed after Mass, at the exit of the parking lot, “preferably in the hand.”
Anushree Shirali, a nephrologist at the Yale University School of Medicine serving on a Catholic Medical Association panel, told Angelus News this week that there is emerging data suggesting that the “viral load” of the novel coronavirus in an infected person’s saliva may be higher than in the pharynx and nasal passages, potentially making the mouth “a huge reservoir” for the virus.
The Archdiocese of New York guidelines appeal: “Given the frequency of direct contact with saliva in the distribution of Holy Communion on the tongue, it is strongly recommended that every consideration should be made by each individual to receive the host reverently in open hands for the protection of all.”
In some of the Eastern Catholic Churches, Communion normally consists of small pieces of leavened bread soaked in wine. It is distributed with a golden spoon directly into the communicant’s mouth. The Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, Conn., issued guidelines for reopening churches, which said, among other things, that pastors should remind worshipers to open their mouth widely so that it does not come in contact with the spoon. The spoon should be sanitized after each communicant with a cloth soaked in pure alcohol. The eparchy also gave priests the option of using one disposable wooden spoon per person. Such spoons should be then burned after the liturgy.
Most if not all dioceses are continuing to suspend the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and some also suspended the so-called “Easter Duty,” the requirement of Catholics to receive Communion at least once a year, in the Easter Season. They are also reminding the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and people who care for the sick that they should avoid coming to church. And anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home, they added.
Because of the continuing restrictions, bishops are encouraging parishes who are live-streaming their Masses on Facebook and YouTube to continue doing so. Some are also reminding pastors of the need to stay in touch with those who cannot make it to church and to be available to bring the sacraments, particularly Confession, Communion and Anointing, to those in need.
At least two dioceses made a point of saying that there should not be any socializing after Mass, such as at a coffee hour.
The instructions for parishes to “reopen” range from a simple letter issued by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski to a very detailed multi-phase plan drawn up by the Archdiocese of Chicago for all the dioceses in the state of Illinois. Chicago’s plan envisions each pastor forming a task force and designating a compliance officer to monitor the parish’s progress in instituting and maintaining the requirements to be certified for reopening and being allowed to admit greater numbers at Mass.
While Miami offered a set date of May 26 to resume weekday Masses with congregations and May 30 for Sunday Masses, other dioceses indicated that dates would be determined when certain conditions were met, often in consultation with public officials.