There is no shortage of chatter online among Catholics discussing the wisdom of closing liturgical services to the faithful and the prospects for making access to the sacraments widely available once again. For the most part, the exchange reflects the broader debate over whether, when and how to ‘re-open’ the economy.
Church leadership should begin to consider practical steps designed to move toward resuming communal celebration of the Mass. If bicycle repair shops (which could encourage crowd concentration on public streets and open parks), liquor stores and firearms ranges can remain open so long as they abide by safety precautions, churches should be offered an opportunity to make a case for how they can open for worship in a responsible manner. What follows below are a few suggestions for how parishes might pursue a ‘re-opening’ of the Mass.
Limited-attendance Mass. Experts and other commentators alike are suggesting that crowd-size control will be a feature of public events. Parish worship offers an opportunity for the public to begin this practice through the commencement of communal worship with limited attendance.
Congregant-size control could be maintained by a parish-specific system. One option would be to assign attendance on a rotating basis alphabetically. Many parishes could employ multi-user digital services. For example, parishes could maintain shared online documents (through the use of Google docs or other similar service) allowing parishioners to choose and exchange their admittance date for greater convenience.
Not everyone will have the opportunity to attend a Sunday liturgy. Some parishes and other ministries have the capacity to expand the number of their services to allow for maximum attendance across several services. For others, attendance at a weekday liturgy will need to suffice as a temporary substitute. Evening Mass options throughout the week might offer greater convenience.
Additional precautions can be taken through the widespread use of facial coverings and social distancing. Individual congregants (including family members for the sake of consistency) would need to maintain at least six feet distance between them. Brightly colored tape could designate acceptable seating areas within the pews. Churches could enlist the assistance of volunteers to disinfect seating areas and other spaces in between services.
Sacramental distribution. The use of gloves and social distancing would allow for a responsible distribution of communion. With the communicant standing at a marked space (identified with the use of brightly colored electrical tape or similar means), a minister wearing gloves could place the consecrated host into the outstretched hands of the recipient. Those waiting to receive would maintain at least six feet distance between each person in line. Gloves would be disposed of in a respectful manner at the conclusion of each Mass.
Need for coordination. No individual pastor or other priest should pursue a return to communal worship without the support of his bishop. The gravity of the pandemic requires that bishops (in many instances, acting through state conferences) coordinate with state and local government officials on a plan that will allow a return to some limited communal worship in tandem with a ‘re-opening’ of the economy.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1389) obliges the faithful to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, if possible during the Easter season. With the arrival of Pentecost barely more than a month away, the end of the season is fast approaching.
State government leaders are beginning to discuss responsible steps to resume a level of public activity. For the sake of their flock, bishops should insert themselves into those discussions.
Related reading: “Opinion: It’s prudent to extend general lockdown, keep churches closed” | By Russell Shaw
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