8 Ways to Start Rolling Back Church Coronavirus Restrictions Now

It is time to hear the pleas of God’s good people. It is time to work courageously, creatively, prudently and pastorally to restore the sacraments to greater and greater numbers.

This combination of pictures created on April 12, 2020, shows Holy Week Masses being celebrated behind closed doors amid the outbreak of the new coronavirus in (L-R and top to bottom) Caracas, Tlalnepantla in Mexico, San Jose and Ouro Preto in Brazil.
This combination of pictures created on April 12, 2020, shows Holy Week Masses being celebrated behind closed doors amid the outbreak of the new coronavirus in (L-R and top to bottom) Caracas, Tlalnepantla in Mexico, San Jose and Ouro Preto in Brazil. (photo: Photos by CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ, PEDRO PARDO, EZEQUIEL BECERRA, and DOUGLAS MAGNO — AFP via Getty Images)

We are more than four weeks into a disaster unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Of first concern are those who are gravely ill and those who have died. But we cannot forget many others who have lost their jobs or seen their businesses and livelihoods vanish. Particularly hard-hit are restaurants, theaters, the airline industry, sports and other aspects of the service and entertainment industry.

I am not a journalist of these things, but as a priest I hold many in my heart who suffer both physical and economic ruin and also those who have seen the cancellation of important life-passage moments such as weddings, baptisms, graduations, anniversaries and the like.

But above all, as a priest, I have great pain from our loss in the ability to celebrate the liturgy publicly and celebrate the sacraments freely and openly. The liturgy, the reception of sacraments and the spiritual well-being of our people are of supreme importance.

To be fair to our bishops, they certainly have an obligation to follow just laws and limits set on public gatherings. Some of our bishops face stricter measures than others and this may explain some of the variation in policies from diocese to diocese. The bishops had little time to ponder creative ways of meeting the requirements and still assisting the faithful in having some recourse to the sacraments to include Holy Communion.

But now that some time has passed, it is my hope that our bishops will work with their priests and be more open to creative ways of offering the sacraments (including Holy Communion) within the reasonable guidelines offered by public authorities and health officials.

At this time the general consensus among dioceses is that no public Masses are to be celebrated under any circumstances. In other matters there is less consensus. It is reported that a few bishops have also forbidden confessions being heard due to stay at home orders, while in other dioceses confessions are being heard. And some dioceses have ordered all churches to be locked, while in other locations churches are open for prayer. Some dioceses have canceled weddings and funerals; others have not.

Permit me a few observations and proposals of creative ways to restore greater access to the sacraments and the parish church to God’s faithful.

1. Is it really necessary to lock the church doors? While there may be local ordinances some bishops are dealing with (e.g., “stay at home” orders), it still seems that these severer measures by some bishops stand in contrast to the fact the just about everywhere food stores, liquor stores, drug stores — even bike shops, dry cleaners and garden centers — are open. If obtaining food and liquor, fixing your bike and washing your clothes are seen as essential, why should a house of prayer be locked? Is it not important to pray and make visits to the Blessed Sacrament?

Thankfully in the Washington, D.C., area the mayor and governors have included “visiting a house of worship for private prayer” as a permitted outing. Where this does not exist in other jurisdictions, bishops should vigorously insist that if people can go to liquor stores, others should certainly be able to stop by their parish church to pray. My own parish church is open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Many do stop by, but there are never more than 10 at a time. Our cleaning crew washes the pews daily and hand sanitizers are at the door. Please, let’s insist on the right to keep our church doors open. Even if every church in a diocese cannot be open, surely some in each region should welcome the faithful to pray before the Lord in the tabernacle.

2. In most parts of the country gatherings of 10 or fewer are permitted with required social distancing. So why can’t a priest celebrate a Mass for 10 or fewer people? Clearly there would have to be a kind of sign-up process and an ability to limit the participants to stay within the norms. But if there is no ordinance being violated, why not permit priests to invite nine of the faithful to join him for these special Masses?

3. As for giving Communion to the faithful, there seems to be a rather extreme fear of contagion that we do not apply to other things. For example, I go to the local store and pick up a tomato and squeeze it to see if it’s over-ripe. Perhaps I put it down and others come behind me and do the same. In the pasta aisle I pull a box down, discover it is the wrong kind of pasta and return it to the shelf. Someone comes behind me and does the same. I then interact with a store cashier, who, among other things hands me a receipt and likely requires me to sign or punch codes on a credit card machine.

In other words, things are touched by people in a store hundreds of times, rubber gloves or not. We accept this as a necessary aspect of shopping and a risk worth taking. But suddenly, with Holy Communion, if a priest gets anywhere near someone to give them the Host, there is grave danger. I think we can be a little less fearful of distributing Communion than many currently are and I ask our bishops, working within proper civil norms, to consider gradually reintroducing public Masses. More about how to distribute Communion below.

4. Another way of celebrating public Masses is the parking lot Mass. People stay in their cars and park in every other space. The Mass is celebrated, and people can tune to a low-power radio station to hear, and then the priest distributes Communion according to local norms. Bishop Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has done just this. Perhaps other bishops can work with civil officials to permit this as well.

5. As for how to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful, some jurisdictions permit the clergy to do just as is done in stores now, with a face mask and rubber gloves. While I think the faithful have a general right to receive on the tongue, in this scenario it might require Communion in the hand. But unusual times call for unusual measures.

6. Communion for a small number could also be distributed using a chin paten. A host is placed on the chin paten, extended to the communicant who is approximately 6 feet away who takes the host off the paten and receives it. In ordinary times such a process is forbidden and we must work to restore proper disciplines when this plague passes. But these are not ordinary times.

7. Funerals should not be forbidden. We still do them here. But only nine members of the family can attend.

8. Confessions can be heard following prudent norms. I hear them here nearly every day and we follow the norms established by the diocese in consultation with public health officials. The confessional area is frequently wiped down and hand sanitizer is amply available. The faithful can also wear masks. There is no need to forbid confession since proper procedures can be easily observed.

I therefore appeal to my brother priests and also to our bishops that we work creatively, prudently and pastorally to restore the sacraments to greater and greater numbers. I would be willing to celebrate Mass several times a day to accommodate small groups if that’s what it takes to work with the norms and offer Communion even to some.

Please, my brothers and superiors — many of the faithful have written to me and told me they feel abandoned by the Church. It may be true that we were caught off guard by the sudden storm and felt required to take strong actions. But now there is time for pastoral reflection. It is time to hear the pleas of God’s good people. These pleas come from the ranks of the ordinary faithful and also from widely respected lay leaders.

It is time for a creative restoration of the sacraments, even if on a limited basis at first. It is time to implement a pastoral plan that reflects that “field hospital” once mentioned by the Pope. Field hospitals can’t always follow the exacting norms of a state-of-the-art trauma center, and so a few temporary liberties regarding liturgical practices may be required. But in the end, people need Jesus. Respectful of legitimate precautions, let’s creatively and ingeniously work to reunite the faithful with the Mass and the regular reception of Holy Communion and Confession.

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, April 17, 2014.

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