Amid debates about how and when to resume gatherings and reopen schools and businesses around the United States, many Catholics have been left wondering: What about Mass?
Public Masses around the country have been suspended or limited to small numbers in an ongoing effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But how will sacramental life resume?
In a few states where local governments are allowing for more businesses to open, churches are making accommodations. This week, Catholic News Agency reported, the Montana dioceses of Great Falls-Billings and Helena will resume public Masses on April 26 in the parishes that are able to abide by the requirements of public-health orders and social distancing. The bishop of Lubbock, Texas, advised his priests that churches could begin to prepare for the distribution of Communion through drive-up services.
However, Georgia’s bishops advised Catholics in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah that they were “not authorizing the return to congregating at churches or making our churches available for devotions. This determination extends through the month of May.” The announcement came the same week Georgia’s governor allowed gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys to open their doors.
A sampling of Catholic bishops and their spokespersons told the Register that there is no set timetable on resuming Masses, and these decisions will likely look different in different dioceses and regions in the United States.
Bishop Peter Baldacchino of the Diocese of Las Cruces told Catholic News Agency earlier this month that he would allow public Masses and sacramental life in his diocese to resume, while operating within state health rules prohibiting indoor gatherings of more than five people, and with priests and the faithful observing specific guidelines for the distribution of the Eucharist. He also encouraged solutions including open-air services and drive-in Masses in church parking lots.
Bishop Baldacchino told the Register in an interview that “we are doing what we can do” and cited the low population density of his diocese and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and state health officials as factors he considered in permitting some public Masses. “I really think that what we have done and what we plan to do is to be with the people and to do it in a proper manner, without putting people at risk,” he said.
Bishop Baldacchino said each diocese must consider its own “context” when making the decision about how to resume public Masses.
“Every place has its own situation, and this is why there are bishops in different areas, as there are governors in different areas, and everyone does differently to serve as best they can the people entrusted to them. I think it is with this drive that we started to discuss and see how and what we can do in order to reach the people,” Bishop Baldacchino said.
Bishop Baldacchino said not only will decisions about how and when to resume public Masses differ from diocese to diocese, but they also may differ from parish to parish.
“Even within the diocese, not all parishes have the same parking lots or the same spaces,” he said, adding, “It’s a matter of everyone doing what they can do.”
New York and New Jersey, respectively, have seen the most cases of the coronavirus — and the highest death tolls from the pandemic — in the United States.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, told the Register in an email, “As the New Jersey region, unfortunately, has the highest number of reported COVID-19 cases in the nation, with increasing reported deaths, it is prudent to continue compliance with statewide mandates for social-distancing protocols at this time.”
Decisions about reopening, Cardinal Tobin said, will be governed by “the well-being and safety of our clergy, staff and parishioners, and the archdiocese will continue to review guidance from federal and state officials as plans to reopen are considered.”
Cardinal Tobin noted that the four counties that comprise the territory of the Archdiocese of Newark “are also the four counties in the state with the highest number of infections and deaths because of COVID-19.”
“At the moment, it is much more dangerous to live in northern New Jersey than any other place in the United States, except for New York City,” he said, adding that another challenge unique to his archdiocese is “the great number of municipalities within its relatively small territory.”
“Some of those municipalities, like the cities of Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken and Elizabeth, have very strict enforcement of the orders to remain in one’s home,” Cardinal Tobin said.
Cardinal Tobin praised the priests and parishioners of his archdiocese for their response to the pandemic and the suspension of Masses, noting he is particularly pleased with priests conducting Mass “via livestream so that we may remain united as one Church and one people amidst this ongoing pandemic,” as well as with the people who have ensured that charitable work can continue.
“Many of our parish ministries and Catholic groups have been doing an extraordinary job in continuing to provide critical community services during the pandemic,” he said.
He pointed to St. John’s Soup Kitchen in Newark, which he said is still serving hot meals, as well as “Homebound Connections,” a ministry of Our Lady of Sorrows parish in South Orange to help members of the parish who are homebound to get what they need from grocery stores and pharmacies, as examples of charitable work necessary during the pandemic. He noted that Catholic Charities is still operating its emergency shelters, its emergency food network and other programs, while the Archdiocese of Newark Student Support Fund continues to assist families who have children attending Catholic schools and who were impacted by job loss due to the pandemic, as well as providing free or low-cost meals to students in need.
Meanwhile, other regions and states have fared relatively better amid the pandemic. As of this writing, the state of North Dakota was not under a stay-home order, but issued lighter restrictions and issued guidance discouraging gatherings of more than 10 people.
Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck told the Register in an interview that he made the decision to suspend public Masses in his diocese in close coordination with Bishop John Folda of the Diocese of Fargo, due to the commonalities of their communities, such as large families who have extended family members in both dioceses.
As the pandemic began, Bishop Kagan said he and Bishop Folda spoke a few times a week and carefully monitored the developing situation.
Bishop Kagan acknowledged feeling conflicted about the matter of suspending Masses, but “both in justice and charity, we have to act in such a way that we protect our people, our priests in this health crisis,” particularly as there are lingering questions about the virus and how it spreads.
He said he is grateful that the people of his diocese “have been very understanding” and “quite patient” about the decision.
“It’s by no means what any of us wanted, but you kind of become more imaginative in how we can pray together, but from a distance,” Bishop Kagan said. He pointed to the example of livestreaming funeral rites, with mourners watching from their cars outside.
“I think we do have an obligation to be cooperative and not jump the gun, so to speak, or do things that will endanger people’s health,” he said, saying sometimes people run the risk of being “zealous when you need a little more patience.”
“As time goes on, we’re certainly going to come through this,” Bishop Kagan added.
Bishop Kagan said he will consider guidance from state officials when making his decision about how and when to resume Mass. He also pointed to decisions about how and when to reopen public, private and parochial schools as one of the factors he will consider in deciding when to resume public Masses in the Diocese of Bismarck.
Bishop Kagan praised the state of North Dakota for offering “very good leadership” during the pandemic and said that guidance has been “reliable.”
In the meantime, he said, he has seen “silver linings” throughout the current situation.
“There have been many blessings,” he said, highlighting how he’s heard from multiple people in his diocese that they are coming to appreciate their families more due to the extra time spent together. Bishop Kagan said he was particularly moved by the example of two young cousins receiving their first Communion together with just their four parents in attendance, outside of the presence of a pastor and deacon.
“There are many, many graces and blessings that are coming to all of us, I think, having to endure this,” he said.
But Bishop Kagan stressed that there is no set timeline on how this decision will be made in extraordinary circumstances.
“It’s certainly unprecedented in my lifetime,” Bishop Kagan said. “I’m getting old — I’m a little over 70 — and I’ve never seen this before.”
Virginia is another state that has experienced “widespread” cases of the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
Amber Roseboom, director of media relations for the Diocese of Arlington, said in a statement to the Register that the diocese “is closely monitoring the situation, as the response to the coronavirus develops daily.”
Roseboom noted that Virginia’s stay-at-home order is currently in place until June 10, and Gov. Ralph Northam extended his executive order limiting gatherings of groups of more than 10 people through May 8.
“Bishop [Michael] Burbidge remains committed to aiding efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus and safeguard the health of parishioners, students, staff, volunteers and those we serve throughout the diocese,” she said. “He sees our efforts, consistent with social-distancing guidelines from federal and state authorities and health experts, as an act of compassion to our neighbors as we go through this together.”
“Be assured that, while public celebration of the Masses has been suspended temporarily, priests still offer private daily Masses for our intentions,” Roseboom added. “In this very unique environment, Bishop Burbidge and countless clergy throughout the diocese are also livestreaming Masses, and many parishes have begun virtual devotions, enabling us to come together spiritually.”
Kate Scanlon is a producer with EWTN News. She writes from Washington, D.C.