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Las Cruces bishop first in US to resume public Masses amid pandemic

By Ed Condon for CNA

Bishop Peter Baldacchino celebrates Mass on Holy Thursday. (Credit: David McNamara/Diocese of Las Cruces)

Washington D.C., Apr 15, 2020 / 04:45 pm (CNA).- The Bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has lifted a diocesan ban on the public celebration of Mass and told priests they may resume sacramental ministry if they follow state-ordered health precautions. He is the first U.S. bishop known to have lifted a diocesan ban on public Masses since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the U.S. last month.

“We [as priests] have been called by Christ and ordained to serve the people of the Diocese of Las Cruces, to bring them hope and consolation during this difficult time,” Bishop Peter Baldacchino wrote in a letter dated April 15 and obtained by CNA.

Christopher Velasquez, communications director of the diocese, confirmed the letter to CNA on Wednesday evening.

Velasquez stressed the “essential ministry of hope” the Church is called to undertake during the pandemic. He added that the diocese urges all Catholics in at-risk demographics to exercise prudence, remain at home and watch the Mass on livestream whenever possible

In his letter, Baldacchino said that “At the outset of the pandemic, I ordered the priests of the Diocese of Las Cruces to suspend all public Masses as we assessed the situation and established a safe way to continue to bring Christ to the people, both through the Word of God and the Sacraments.”

“These past few weeks have allowed me to further analyze the situation and discern a safe way to proceed,” the bishop wrote.

“It has become increasingly clear that the state shutdown will last for some time. Depriving the faithful of the nourishment offered through the Eucharist was indeed a difficult decision, one that I deemed necessary until I had further clarity regarding our current state of affairs, but it cannot become the status quo for the foreseeable future.”

Dioceses across the United States have suspended the public celebration of Mass, and many have restricted priests’ ability to hear confessions and anoint the sick. While priests in some dioceses have tried to find ways to provide sacramental ministry, including drive-in Masses and Eucharistic adoration, some bishops have banned these practices.

Baldacchino said in his letter that the public danger posed by the coronavirus had to inspire renewed reflection by the Church, and demanded a response from ministers. He also said that his action was in part inspired by the deaths of two priests, close friends and seminary classmates, who contracted the virus.

“We are all aware of the tragedy caused by the Coronavirus, I myself have lost two close friends of mine, priests I studied and served with. I am fully conscious of the death and sadness these days seem to bring. And yet there is more. The Coronavirus can also be a help to us. How long have we settled down in our ‘usual way’ of doing things? For how long have we grown comfortable with our routines? For how long have we taken the grace of the sacraments for granted? Or the beauty of the assembly at Mass?”

Baldacchino said the crisis created by the pandemic had brought about “a time for renewal.”

“In the events of these days and weeks the Lord is calling us out of our comfort zone, he is calling us to seek new ways to reach the people. In addition to this mission with which we are entrusted, we also have the mission to keep people safe. The two must be equally pursued,” he said.

“While it is true that we need to take every reasonable precaution to reduce the spread of Coronavirus, it is equally true that we offer the greatest ‘essential service’ to our people. The past few weeks have brought to light many unintended consequences of the ‘stay-at-home’ order.”

The bishop pointed to reports that the Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal crisis hotline run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has seen an 891% increase of calls during the pandemic, with large spikes also being recorded at suicide prevention hotlines. He also noted reports of increases in domestic violence in places under lockdown.

“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 said.

“We, as priests, are called to bring the Word of Life to people, we are called to minister the life-giving sacraments. Televised Masses have been an attempt to bridge the gap during this time, but I am increasingly convinced that this is not enough,” Baldacchino said.

“The eternal life offered in Christ Jesus needs to be announced. It was precisely the urgency of this announcement that drove the first apostles and the need is no less today. Christ is alive and we are his ambassadors.”

Revoking the suspension of public Masses, in place in the diocese since March 16, the bishop said that priests are now allowed to celebrate Masses in the presence of the faithful “while maintaining all current health precautions set forth by the state and federal government.”

Baldacchino’s letter noted that the state of New Mexico recently updated its Public Health Order, which no longer includes churches as “essential services.”

“I strongly disagree,” he said. “Sadly, the Governor is no longer exempting places of worship from the restrictions on ‘mass gatherings.’ It seems to me that while we run a daily count of the physical deaths we are overlooking those who are dead interiorly.”

To comply with the governor’s directive, guidelines issued to all priests limit attendance at Mass in church buildings to 5 people, including the celebrant, and insist that a minimum safe distance of six feet be observed and all seating sanitized after Mass ends.

Baldacchino also authorized priests to celebrate Mass outdoors, in compliance with state guidance on social distancing, and specifically recommended setting up an altar in the parish parking lot with parishioners remaining in their cars with an empty space between each vehicle.

“Parishes that lack sufficient parking spaces may celebrate the liturgies in open cemeteries or other available open spaces. Parishioners should maintain at least a six feet separation at all times,” the guidance states.

Over the Easter Triduum, the bishop had a stage erected outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and celebrated the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil for local Catholics who remained in their cars.

The guidelines also lay out strict instructions for the distribution of Communion, with priests told to wear a face mask, sanitize their hands, and wear gloves for the distribution.

Baldacchino also encouraged priests to continue hearing confessions and ensure that the anointing of the sick was still available where necessary.

“Priests may and should continue to offer” the sacraments, he said. “The faithful are not to be deprived of this sacrament, especially when in danger of death.”

In recent weeks, Baldacchino himself has frequently heard confessions behind a screen outside the cathedral in Las Cruces.

The bishop also made provision for priests to resume weddings and funerals in accordance with state regulations on social distancing, and granted permission for them to be held outside on Church property for the duration of the pandemic.


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8 Comments

  1. I’m glad to hear this. I hope other dioceses can move in this direction.
    We had a drive in Mass scheduled during Lent but I guess our bishop decided it conflicted with our state guidelines because it got canceled. But we do have drive thru & walk thru outdoor Confessions.

  2. Once again, another spin-job CNS headline that is disingenuously misleading. “Heroic” Bishop Baldacchino is only allowing the NM-permitted 4 members of the faithful to be present at the Masses he is “resuming”. What a joke.

    For the full story see https://akacatholic.com/breaking-heroic-bishop-restores-public-mass

    “BREAKING: Heroic Bishop Restores Public Mass! No, wait… April 16, 2020

    Catholic social media is all abuzz this morning over news that Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, NM, has become the first U.S. bishop to lift the ban on public Masses.

    “We need ALL bishops to follow his example,” wrote one exuberant gentleman in response to the wonderful news. “Finally,” another well-meaning commentator said, “a bishop who really cares about his flock!”

    Certainly, let us assume that Bishop Baldacchino really does care about his flock, but let’s not make plans for his canonization just yet; in the present case we’re talking about a “flock” consisting of a maximum of four – count them, four – individual faithful at any given Mass.

    As reported by Catholic News Agency:

    The announcement came days after New Mexico’s governor banned gatherings of more than 5 people, a restriction Baldacchino said priests must observe, even as the bishop expressed his objection to it …

    To comply with the governor’s directive, guidelines issued to all priests limit attendance at Mass in church buildings to 5 people, including the celebrant, and insist that a minimum safe distance of six feet be observed and all seating sanitized after Mass ends.

    At this rate it would take half-a-dozen Masses just to include all of the Las Cruces priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children, and that’s with the molesters vested and concelebrating.

    Got a family of five? Sorry mom and dad, you’re gonna have to split up.

    The reality is that Baldacchino is not the least bit heroic; rather, he’s just one of hundreds of weak-kneed prelates who behave as if the State has dictatorial power of the Church, taking a I don’t agree with the civil authority, but I have no choice but to follow approach.

    Evidently, he like so many others has neither the spine nor the sensus Catholicus to invoke, or even express, the Sovereign Rights of Christ the King as made manifest in the eminent freedom of the Holy Catholic Church in matters pertaining to her salvific mission.

    Baldacchino has been in the news in recent weeks, and receiving plenty of conservative attaboys, for offering “parking lot” Masses with the faithful remaining in their cars.

    Sorry folks, this isn’t the behavior of an intrepid shepherd, it’s the cowardice of a man who is determined to bend over backwards in order to obey the secular authorities, regardless of how egregiously they happen to encroach upon the exclusive jurisdiction of the Church.

    In the end, this is far from breaking news; the real story here was written more than half-a-century ago when Vatican Council II uncrowned Christ the King.

    aka Spin Job”

  3. I thought this was great until I got to the end of the story. FIVE people in the church for Mass??? Is this guy kidding? That is worse than useless. Who gets to be the other 4??? Friends of the Bishop or the big donors? I agree with those who say the Bishops played dead on this whole issue. My rather large church could easily hold 50 or more and observe social distancing. Not great but way better than 5. I hear some colleges will not re-open until 2021. Stadiums in California not for another year unless they recall the current governor. If the Bishops close Mass and the sacraments to all the faithful until the State gives its ok,maybe 6 months to a year from now, how many Catholics will still be interested in going to church at all at that point?? The Bishops made a strategic error by allowing church to be considered non-essential. This will come back to bite them the next time the state wants to close us down. Can you imagine Bishop Sheen being OK with this?? NO!!!

  4. Bishops were the first to shudder the churches in the US to save man. They forgot one must lose their life if one is to save it.God took a back seat to man and his (man’s) creation. Cardinal Cupich said prayer is useless because it is not magic, instead we need to trust man and medical science, they will save us not God. Abortion clinics, liquor stores and dope dispensaries must remain open as essential to our survival as mankind. The Pope has reminded us of our sins against the earth has allowed this to happen. Our sheperds have forgotten their divine calling to not be afraid and not give in to the world . The obligation to attend Sunday Mass as a Divine mandate is just dispensed along with the other sacraments.
    Ever wonder why people leave and never come back, it is because we are no longer salt,leaven or light to the world.We are no different so there is reason to seek out Christ in His Divinely instituted Church.
    As a Deacon in His church I have seen how our leaders are not willing to lay down their life for Christ and his Bride. When parishoners call me to voice their concerns, after speaking to our leaders to dump their frustrations on me, many say thay are done attending mass. The priests have been relentless in seeing that they continue sending in the offeratory each week but are unwilling to open the doors of church or the adoration chapel.
    They will stay home to watch mass on TV, say an act of contrition instead of going to confession and just be a nice person like them (our leaders).
    When I preach the hard truths like the last four things,Hell, losing one’s life, abortion and the attacks on God’s most beloved creation us , the clergy are quick to chastise me for not being Christlike and divisive (they must be reading a different bible).
    Pope Benedict said the church is but to be a small fragment and remnant of the original. That is why I will seek it out.
    The current saga of the church gives me no hope ,I am so done with it.Sorry Jesus.

  5. Our Bishops must speak up to defend our right to pray in our Churches. More Masses could be scheduled so people can spread out. Bishops do God’s Will. That’s what you were ordained to do!

    • What, do you expect priests to go out of their way and offer multiple masses each day? I expect that will happen right after pigs fly.

      Tom

  6. Thank God Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels they never stopped in New York they kept fighting crime and they feed before the poor on
    Easter Sunday in Penn Station amazing anyone interested can go to and look up his name on YouTube and see what they did. Where were our Bishops and Priests where were the Liberals then opening their mouth about feeding the poor and immigration for the marginalized I didn’t see one liberal out there
    The guardian angels through it on Easter Sunday Curtis had no mask no gloves amazing St action

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