Diocese to begin gradual resumption of public Masses on May 18

From staff reports

Bishop J. Mark Spalding has announced that a gradual resumption of the celebration of public Masses in the Diocese of Nashville will begin on Monday, May 18.

“While a cause for celebration, it is important to recognize at the same time that these first steps are not simply an open call to return as normal,” Bishop Spalding wrote in a letter to the faithful of the diocese released on Thursday, May 7. READ LETTER

“The risk of COVID-19 remains significant, especially to seniors and persons with existing health concerns,” Bishop Spalding wrote. “As we return to Mass, we must continue to embrace the responsibility of protecting the health and well-being of all in our community. With that in mind, although parishes may resume public Masses beginning May 18, some pastors may prudently decide to wait a few more weeks” based on local conditions in the communities they serve. 

“We are blessed with a great variety of parishes in this diocese, and that diversity allows for a certain adaptability,” the bishop added. “We especially do not want to put anyone at undue risk from a hasty or ill-prepared reopening. Our return to church must be measured, prudent, and gradual, as we responsibly respond to the situation.”

Although the gradual resumption of public Masses will begin May 18, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days will remain in effect through June 30, Bishop Spalding said in his letter to the faithful.

“Those who have an active ongoing illness (including infection, flare of a chronic illness, etc.), anyone over the age of 65, those with a history of heart failure, lung disease, diabetes, ongoing malignancy, any immunosuppressive disorder, those on steroids or other immunosuppressive medications, those who have been advised by a health care professional not to attend Mass, and those who live with anyone with any health vulnerability, are strongly encouraged to remain at home at this time and refrain from attending Mass,” Bishop Spalding wrote.

“Additionally, anyone who is worried that attending Mass would add undue stress or jeopardize their health or the health of a person with whom they live, are also encouraged to remain at home,” he added.

The bishop is encouraging pastors to offer special Masses on weekdays particularly for those 65 or older rather than have them attend the more crowded Sunday Masses. “If you are a member of this vulnerable age group and wish to attend Mass, I strongly encourage taking advantage of these special Masses, even if you are in good health,” he wrote.

During the time restrictions on gatherings of people have been in place to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the diocese and individual parishes have been live-streaming Masses for people to watch online.

“I encourage pastors to continue the practice of live-streaming Masses in order to provide for the spiritual nourishment of those remaining at home,” Bishop Spalding said in his letter.

There will be some adjustments to the celebration of Mass because of the ongoing risk of COVID-19, the bishop warned. Among the guidelines to be strictly enforced through June 30, 2020, are:

• The suspension of distributing the Precious Blood at Communion and refraining from any physical exchange of the Sign of Peace will continue, and holy water fonts will remain empty.

• Pastors should strongly encourage all parishioners, out of charity for their clergy and their neighbor during this time of ongoing risk of infection, to receive the Holy Eucharist in the hand. The bishop urged this, but gently and with sensitivity. No persons may be denied Holy Communion because they are unwilling to honor this request. 

• Pastors have been encouraged to consult with key lay leaders to formulate plans for maintaining social distancing as parishioners come to worship, as they are seated in the church, as they approach the sanctuary for the Rite of Communion, and how they depart the worship space. 

• Attendance at Mass will not exceed 50 percent of the capacity of the church. To do that, pastors may consider adding Masses or holding simultaneous Masses in additional locations as well as blocking of every other row of pews. Families who live under one roof will be encouraged to sit together and maintain six feet of separation from others.

• All guidelines for personal hygiene are to be followed, especially those concerning hand washing and sanitizing, and all present should wear a mask or facial covering.

• Choirs and other musicians must observe social distancing. Therefore, pastors should consider temporarily reducing musical personnel to a soloist or small group of singers.

• All non-liturgical gatherings at the church must be limited to 10 people or less.

• Pastors should plan prudently for home visitations and care for the sick in hospital settings, with precautions that reflect the serious dangers inherent in being infected with the Coronavirus.  Pastors should creatively find ways to assist their parishioners while maintaining a strict physical distancing of six feet.

“This may at times lead to discomfort and frustration,” Bishop Spalding said of the restrictions and changes. “The patience and charity of all involved will be essential to handling these changes well. In the coming weeks, let us not lose sight of what a blessing it is to be able to be able to celebrate Mass as a community.”

In a recommendation for pastors, nurseries and children’s liturgies should be discontinued through at least June 30, and people with small children should consider keeping them at home to the extent practicable. 

The priests of the diocese have been encouraged to receive a COVID-19 test before May 18.

The diocese will provide to each parish a Resource Kit with ample amounts of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, signage, ropes or tape to block off pews, and other items.

Bishop Spalding first suspended the public celebration of Mass and proclaimed a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days on March 17. He eventually extended the dispensation through June 30.

Bishop Spalding appointed a working group of clergy and lay people to help him develop the plans for the return of the public celebration of Mass in light of guidance from state and local authorities and public health officials.

The state has issued reopening guidelines that apply to 89 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. In the other six counties, including Davidson County, local officials set their own guidelines.

“As we come together, we should be respectful of the norms and guidelines concerning social distancing,” the bishop added. “These policies are most effective when we work together and are all on the same page. … Your attentiveness to these measures will help everyone in the community feel more comfortable and peaceful when returning to church.”

Bishop Spalding urged people to continue to pray. 

“God is with us in this time of trial, and we should never lose sight of that,” he said. “The inability to attend Mass has meant that many families have introduced new practices of family prayer into their homes. This has been an unexpected grace that has come in the midst of the current crisis. As we return to the communal celebration of Mass, I encourage you to preserve these new practices.”

Bishop Spalding called the suspension of the public celebration of Masses “one of the most difficult decisions of my time as bishop.”

“Recognizing that the nature of the situation has necessitated this decision, does not make the pain and sorrow any less real,” he said. “I want to express my gratitude for the kindness, patience, and understanding of those who have embraced this decision with humility and trust.”