Dioceses reviewing best, safest options for return of public Masses

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A man prays March 21, 2020, at St. Patrick Church in Huntington, N.Y., during the coronavirus pandemic. Church life is expected to reflect new practices when public Masses resume. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

CLEVELAND (CNS) — Parishioners eager to return to attending Mass in person with longtime friends are beginning to hear about plans to slowly bring back at least a minimal semblance of parish life.

Bishops in dioceses across the U.S. are turning their attention to how best to reopen Masses to the public and more readily celebrating the sacraments while protecting the safety of worshippers and adhering to state guidance on mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

One New Mexico diocese resumed public Masses in mid-April. And in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, public Masses were permitted starting April 29.

Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, April 15 allowed public Masses to resume with restrictions that followed state requirements. He approved the start of outdoor services with people in cars as well as liturgies inside churches with no more than five people present and practicing social distancing.

The so-called drive-in Masses have been welcomed by parishioners, Christopher Velasquez, diocesan director of communications, said. He estimated that 45%-50% of the diocese’s 47 parishes and 44 missions have regularly scheduled outdoor liturgies.

“It seems people within our community are appreciative that we are ministering and taking precautions,” he said.

Portland Bishop Robert P. Deeley April 29 announced that public Masses could resume immediately outdoors in church parking lots with restrictions.

The announcement said holy Communion would not be distributed and worshippers were to remain in their vehicles with cars leaving one empty parking space between them. Social distancing would be the norm for those ministering at a Mass, and offertory collections would not be taken, although parishioners were encouraged to donate to their parish through the online portal WeShare.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Archdiocese of Baltimore are developing post-quarantine guidelines and protocols regarding liturgy, the sacraments and related concerns.

Auxiliary Bishop Adam J. Parker, vicar general, said a subcommittee of the archdiocesan coronavirus task force is expected to make its recommendations to the full task force in the coming days.

If approved by the task force and Archbishop William E. Lori, the recommendations will be distributed to pastors, pastoral life directors and parish leaders to help navigate what could be a thorny and challenging process for reopening in an age of social distancing.

“We’re really grateful for the patience our faithful parishioners, parish leaders and pastors have shown throughout the pandemic,” Bishop Parker said. “We ask for that to continue because it is such a complex matter and there is no precedent for it. We’ve practically rewritten the entire archdiocesan policy manual over the past five or six weeks. Now, in some senses, we are going to be writing it again for the phases of reopening.”

The new plan will be informed by the three-stage process of reopening the state of Maryland outlined by Gov. Larry Hogan April 24. The governor’s plan is dependent on a 14-day decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations before being enacted. No timeline has been outlined for when that reopening process will begin.

In Iowa, bishops remain cautious about restarting public liturgy, saying state health officials have determined the peak of reported cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, has not yet peaked.

“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 state’s four bishops said in an April 28 letter.

In Oklahoma, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa said April 29 they had established a joint task force to explore the timeline and procedures for resumption of public Masses and would announce their plan May 6.

The task force includes priests and laypeople from both dioceses who are consulting with medical professionals.

Elsewhere, the bishops of Ohio April 27 identified the weekend of May 30-31, Pentecost, for the possible resumption of public liturgies.

“We will be working with our pastoral teams to consider reasonable, gradual and responsible initiatives for welcoming back the faith in time for Sunday Mass … which will help us to restore Catholic life and invite others to share that life after the pandemic,” the bishops said in a statement released by the Catholic Conference of Ohio.

Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Columbus, Ohio, said in an April 28 letter to diocesan Catholics that he wanted to be sure churches were clean and safe for worshippers. A diocesan task force is looking at opportunities for evangelization with the eventual resumption of normal activities, he said.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has announced a phased return to normal business activities and public gatherings beginning May 1. He has said a slow reopening of the state was in order to limit the spread of the virus.

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