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Experts offer a path to reopening churches, and the sacraments

An April 28 document from the Thomistic Institute outlines a multi-phase proposal for resumption and expansion of public Masses while remaining in conformity with public health guidelines in force in different places.

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

CNA Staff, Apr 30, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- As more Catholic dioceses begin to resume public Masses during the coronavirus pandemic, a group of theologians and medical experts has provided guidance for doing so as safely as possible.

“With proper safeguards to prevent infection, and integrating the scientific guidance of public health authorities as outlined below, it is possible to provide the Mass and the sacraments to the faithful in this period,” said a group of Dominican theologians and experts on infectious diseases this week.

The Working Group on Infectious Disease Protocols for Sacraments & Pastoral Care, a project of the Thomistic Institute, issued a document this week that aims to give guidance on  “how Catholic sacraments can be provided in the midst of the current pandemic” under U.S. and global health standards.

The April 28 document from the Thomistic Institute outlines a multi-phase proposal for resumption and expansion of public Masses while remaining in conformity with public health guidelines in force in different places.

In “Phase 1,” the “Sunday obligation” to attend Mass should be dispensed, the elderly and those at high risk of COVID-19 should be encouraged to stay home, and those with symptoms should not attend Mass, the working group said.

Other safeguards should be in place, such as requirements for attendees to wear face masks or cloth coverings and an overall limit on the number of attendees. This number depends “on the guidance of public health authorities,” the document says, and could be more than 10 people provided that a church is large enough to seat everyone with at least six feet of distance in between.

Seating should be provided by ushers in designated areas so that all attendees can be seated in an orderly manner and remain spaced apart; after the end of Mass, they could be dismissed row by row so as not to result in a crowd leaving the church all at once, the working group said.

Priests should not offer Mass while wearing gloves and a facemask, especially if they are spaced far enough apart from ministers and attendees.

“A further consideration: the Mass is imbued with powerful sacramental and liturgical symbolism. Wearing a mask and gloves would be a detrimental counter-sign in this context, and it is not warranted by considerations of hygiene if the priest remains a proper distance from the congregation,” the group states.

Mass could be offered without distribution of Holy Communion, or Communion could be distributed at the end of Mass, the group said. After the final blessing, the priest would remove his chasuble, use hand sanitizer, retrieve newly-consecrated hosts from the tabernacle, pray the “Agnus Dei” prayer at the altar while holding up a single host, and then proceed to distribute Communion.

Those who wish to receive could approach the altar, spaced six feet apart. If the priest believed he touched the hands or mouth of a recipient, he could use hand sanitizer that is sitting on a table next to him.

It could be possible to receive Holy Communion on the tongue within public health guidelines, the document states:

“Given the Church’s existing guidance on this point (see Redemptionis Sacramentum , no. 92), and recognizing the differing judgments and sensibilities that are involved, we believe that, with the precautions listed here, it is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk.”

In addition to the four dioceses that initially announced the resumption of public Masses, other bishops have followed suit in the last several days.

In Fort Worth, Texas, Bishop Michael Olson announced on Wednesday that public Masses would resume in the diocese the  weekend of May 2-3, and that parishes would again be offering the sacrament of Confession not just on an appointment basis.

Olson reiterated that he has dispensed Catholics from the Sunday obligation, instructed those feeling ill to refrain from attending Mass, and encouraged those over the age of 60 to attend a Mass exclusively for their age group if their parish offered one.

He also encouraged attendees to practice proper safeguards, such as wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing. Once a church reached capacity with the faithful seated at proper distances from each other, overflow seating could be provided in a nearby hall or attendees could stand outside or follow a livestream of Mass from their cars, with Holy Communion offered to all those outside the church at a designated area, and not to be administered on the tongue.

The Diocese of Fargo will also resume public Masses on May 4, although with the Sunday obligation still dispensed. The elderly and those at high risk of COVID-19 “are strongly encouraged to stay home,” according to a letter from Bishop John Folda.

Other common safeguards, such as the wearing of face masks, social distancing, and a limit on the overall number of Mass attendees, will be in force. Masses will not feature singing by the congregation or by choirs, and Holy Communion can only be received in the hand.

Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, said that public Masses are planned for “over Pentecost weekend and then daily following,” but that the Sunday obligation will still be dispensed. Pentecost Sunday falls on May 31 in 2020.

Requirements for Mass attendees include wearing face masks, proper social distancing, and limits on the overall number of attendees.

In Oklahoma, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa said they were setting up a joint task force to establish a timeline for public Masses to resume and would announce a timeline on May 6.

Founded in 2009, the Thomistic Institute is part of the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.  It has already produced similar guidelines for the sacrament of Confession during the pandemic.

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  1. Lovely that some small group of people are pecking away at this problem.

    I would be more impressed had our pastors, you know, those bishops and priests dudes, the USCCB, bothered to avail themselves of all the medical experts within the US Catholic Church, like maybe 2 months ago, to formulate a nationwide response to allow Masses with parishoners to continue uninterrupted.

    You KNOW they availed themselves extensively of their legal eagles at the very start, and everybody knows law trumps theology, every time…maybe that is why only a lone group is working on this.

    Because it does not matter.

  2. Maybe the churches could employ the use of a drone that, once the faithful were assembled for Mass, would hover above the heads of all while constantly spraying a fumigating agent to kill any lingering viral bodies. It would entail only a small investment.

    • Please tell me your being facetious? I came down ill a few years ago, but the cough and broncho-spasms lasted for weeks after. At the time we sat up front, and our Byzantine priest really liked his incense.

      Breathing was difficult; chanting/singing impossible.

      • Kathryn ,
        I love incense but it always rises up into the choir loft & makes singing pretty difficult. It might kill viruses though…Who knows?

        • One Easter Sunday Mass at a military chapel in Germany the incense set of the newly-installed fire alarm system and we had to evacuate the chapel until the firemen checked it out. 🙂

      • Yes the incessant incensers need to keep their love of smoke to the backyard bonfires, tossing a pine branch onto the pyre and have the crackle and smoke prayer released to the heavens with no roof barrier to slow the ascent. 🙂

    • So if the individual doesn’t sicken with the corona virus then he can surely suffer lung damage or worse from drone administration of a fumigating poison. Lovely!

    • They likely would use sarin if they could still keep collections coming in, it would make life so much simpler for everybody on staffs, from USCCB and its 947 directorates and staffs, all the way down to parish council, music director, education director, outreach director, lay evangelization director, directors of Spanish/Cambodian/Bophthatswanian/Vietnamese/Serbian/etc ministries, and especially the KOC where beer drinking now uninterrupted by parishoners wanting food cooked for them…a win/win, a parish with no parishoners….they have tasted freedom.

  3. Masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer baths for all. No singing. I imagine no collection , money being a vector for germs and all. The whole thing sounds distracting and not overly conducive to prayer. Since the Sunday obligation is revoked, I may wait till the paranoia , hypochondria and fear is dissipated. Jesus said to trust in him . Are we?

    • In California, we have ample opportunity to watch Mass online. My church is smaller than most of the churches in Southern California, but our parish live streams Mass live at 10:00 AM on Sundays and archives it so we can access it at any time. It’s not the same, and the Eucharist is obviously not available. Trust in God? Most assuredly. However, God also gave us a brain! We must use it wisely at this time. Staying home and social distancing works. Let’s be patient and wise.

      • How do those online “Masses” square with the precept to receive Communion at least during Easter? Can that be done remotely? Or, maybe, the bishop will send pyx deliveries to every household in the diocese?

  4. Why not watch Mass on our electronic media as we are currently and then go to the church to receive communion? We could make an appointment for this and it could be done quickly and many people could be served. I just can’t see a large parish making it through Sunday Mass with only ten people (if that includes the celebrant and assistant and the usher, we are down to 7 parishioners) at a time. There is not rough hours in the day, even if they delete the sermon!

  5. A possible temporary solution could be something along the following lines:

    1. Before Mass begins, make sure that an appropriate number of people are seated in a modified staggered formation in their pews with nobody sitting near the center aisle on either side of it (assuming there is at least the common center aisle with pews on either side).

    2. Just before Mass begins and everyone is seated in “designated seats” on the pews, an announcement advises them to not move from their “designated seats” until directed to do so.

    3. A designated priest or deacon with a bag or box of clean paper cups walks up and down the center aisle to motion to each seated person (1 per pew) to determine if that person intends to take Communion.

    4. For each “yes” that is nodded, etc., a small, clean paper cup is placed just inside the corner of the pew for use later. The people must be instructed to leave the cups alone until later and remain in their “designated seats” on the pew (these seats include the kneelers directly in front of them).

    5. After consecration, the Priest advises the people to remain in their “designated seats” (preferably kneeling) as he takes the chalice with the hosts with him and proceeds to move down one side of the center aisle and back up on the other side, briefly stopping at each pew with a cup and holding a host in front of him as he would in typical distribution. He presents and says “The Body of Christ” followed by the kneeling (or sitting) person in the pew looking toward the host and responding Amen, and then the Priest reverently places the host into the appropriate cup and does this repeatedly until all cups contain hosts.

    6. The Priest returns to the altar, and then looks out among the congregation. He advises the people to quietly, calmly, and deliberately move over to pick up their cups and proceed to reverently consume the hosts. The communicants then re-set the empty cups to their “starting pew position,” and they return to their “designated seat” on the pew.

    7. When the Mass ends, people exit out of the pews one at a time per usher guidance in the opposite direction of the center aisle and away from the cups. After they all leave, the cups are picked up by a designated person or persons wearing gloves, and they are properly thrown into a garbage bag in tow for eventual (soon) disposal/destruction. Then the pews and doors are wiped down to prepare for another Mass.

    • Or…before we all freak out like that again, let’s ascertain that the virus in question is really worth it. This one seems to be lighter on the deathload than a tough flu mutation, and our churches, with few exceptions, folded their cards well before any kind of restrictions were even mandated.

      Instead of all those points above, how about a short prayer:

      Lord, give our pope and bishops wisdom and courage to never deprive the faithful of the sacraments again, or replace the whole lot with ones who do possess such wisdom and courage, amen.

      • Sorry to read that you have freaked out. I certainly haven’t. The points I set forth as a possible approach (note “possible”) are simple and can be accomplished quickly if implemented, but perhaps the number threw you off. 7 simple things to remember can be difficult for some. In any case, the numbered listing is done to break down the functions to make it easier for anyone to follow or implement as a guide if so desired, provided they don’t freak out like you did over performing a few simple tasks. I hope you will soon relax.

        • DV, the problem with your idea is that it would be too easy for someone to not consume the host. Would anyone be watching?

          Our parish started drive-up communion this last Sunday and it is done both safely and reverently.

        • DV, your idea is revolting.

          Apart from everything else, throwing the cups (along with any fragments of the Body of Christ) into a garbage bag is horrifying.

          And clearly, no matter how much you deny it, you have freaked out or you wouldn’t have come up with such an irreverent plan, one that is not simple but simple-minded.

      • “Or…before we all freak out like that again, let’s ascertain that the virus in question is really worth it. This one seems to be lighter on the deathload than a tough flu mutation, ”

        I agree with that.

  6. I surely hope and pray we can sing our praise to the Lord at the “celebration” of the Holy Mass. Why not sing? You don’t have to have a huge choir, but you can have music ministry with some distance between them. And why can we not sing with a mask on? Why would you wait until the end of Mass to distribute Holy Communion? I would like to receive Holy Communion at the time we always did. If anyone is uncomfortable doing so, then they don’t have to. Have a section for those who wish to participate fully in the Eucharist and another section for those who do not if that would make some people more comfortable. Please let us hear the Word, receive the Word made flesh, praise, worship and truly celebrate the Mass. Don’t make it a dry ritual with no spirituality.

    • Judy,

      Masses without music happen quite a lot, just not very often on a Sunday. Many people can’t take communion due to irregular marriages, eating before mass, etc. They still participate in a mass where the Trinity is present. Saints and angels are present. They still can pray the spiritual communion prayer. That is spirituality.

  7. I am hearing about courages christian pastors that have reopened their parishes. They have attorneys representing them and peacefully respecting our civil rights. We know the devil does his best work in isolation. Suicides, alcohol sales and child abuse reporting as sky rocketed. What is the Catholic church doing to reopen? The bible calls us to gather as a family. Online church is not what is called for in the bible. If this was fine why do we have church buildings? We are called to gather as a family. I beg you not to follow the rhetoric or allow us to be shamed for gathering. The church is ESSENTIAL. Our Apostles were brave in time of persecution. I ask that the Catholic church stop feeding the fear and panic that is fed by the devil and show it’s followers that we will not succumb to the fear that is not backed in science and stand for it’s people and reopen..

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