Dioceses Seek to Balance Health and Reverence in Plans to Resume Public Mass

As dioceses look to bring the Eucharist to the faithful, various guidance is available to bishops and pastors.

Reopening plans are underway in the Archdiocese of Seattle, whose St. James Cathedral is shown. Published by the Washington State Catholic Conference, the proposal balances liturgical reverence and health guidelines, according to Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg.
Reopening plans are underway in the Archdiocese of Seattle, whose St. James Cathedral is shown. Published by the Washington State Catholic Conference, the proposal balances liturgical reverence and health guidelines, according to Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg. (photo: Shutterstock)

Signs abound that both civil authorities and the faithful are preparing to come out of hiding from the threat posed by the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Together, the Centers for Disease Control and the White House are encouraging states to consider allowing businesses, places of worship and other public venues to open in those regions showing a downward trend in new reported cases of infection. Following the federal government’s lead, many states have already begun planning for multiphase relaxation of restrictions.

For Catholic bishops, how and when these phases will be implemented takes on particular urgency. Not only have their flocks been bereft of the sacraments for more than two months, but — unlike most other religious groups — Catholics participate in a sacramental form of worship requiring personal contact with the Real Presence and therefore, invariably, personal contact with the ministers of that Real Presence.

As civil authorities continue to ease restrictions, many dioceses are looking for ways to bring the Eucharist to the faithful. To this end, the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC) and the Thomistic Institute (TI), both located in Washington, D.C., have each drafted a set of guidelines by which dioceses, bishops and pastors can begin to implement a return to regular (if not normal) public worship and reception of the Eucharist.

Another Catholic group, the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Medical Association (CMA), has also issued guidelines on the health component of public worship to all dioceses in the country. Based on these three sets of guidelines, several dioceses around the country have already begun issuing their own guidelines for returning to public celebration of the Eucharist.

In all cases, the guidelines seek to navigate between a concern for the health and safety of the faithful and a desire to maintain reverence for the Eucharist, both in the celebration of the Mass and in the distribution of Communion.   


Liturgical Guidance

On May 7, the Thomistic Institute issued its “Guidelines on Sacraments and Pastoral Care,” the third part of which, “Phased Restoration of Masses,” addresses how best to distribute Communion to the faithful. The authors noted that the “guidelines … integrate the requirements of the Catholic Church for the valid and licit celebration of the Mass, in accord with Catholic teaching, liturgical law and canon law. We have endeavored to formulate them with great care to preserve and respect the reverence due to the Holy Eucharist and the powerful liturgical and sacramental symbolism of the rites of the Mass.”

These guidelines offer three options in addressing the distribution of the Eucharist — 1) to celebrate Mass without distributing the Eucharist, 2) to distribute it after Mass, and 3) to distribute it during Mass.

The second option, the document states, “is our recommended option, because it respects the symbolic and liturgical integrity of the Mass (which should be celebrated without mask or gloves), avoids any practices in the Mass that could become sources of future liturgical abuse, gives a greater freedom to the faithful to determine whether or not they will come forward for Holy Communion (some may be nervous about doing so), and also provides for additional precautions to reduce risk. It also will permit the priest to remove his chasuble for the distribution of Holy Communion, given that it is difficult to launder if anyone should sneeze or cough on him.”


Local Approach

According to Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), his office had provided all U.S. dioceses with copies of the TI, FDLC and CMA guidelines as a way to make a start on their own diocesan guidelines, especially in regard to celebration of the Eucharist.

“You want the Mass to be as normal and sacred as possible, while at the same time taking whatever medical precautions the experts are advising,” he said. “That’s where the tension lies.”

Rather than developing a national policy on reopening public Masses, Father Menke said, the USCCB has, with the aid of these three sets of guidelines, encouraged a local approach.

“Most local dioceses are forming their own policies and looking to see what neighboring dioceses are doing, or working together as a region or state, and trying to come up with some common practices in the regions,” he said. 

The guidelines from the Thomistic Institute, in particular, Father Menke said, provide a “big-picture vision” of the liturgy that takes safety into consideration, but not at the expense of reverence.

“If you look at what the Dominicans are trying to do in their document — and some of that is matter of opinion and some disagree with them — they were trying hard to find that balance. They didn’t think a priest should be wearing a mask at Mass because it’s such a distraction from the normal sobriety of the celebration, and they also gave medical reasons for why a mask was not necessary. Others said there’s nothing wrong with wearing a mask, liturgically speaking. But I think the Dominicans made an interesting case there.”

Father Menke also appreciates the perspective that the medical experts offered in the TI document. These doctors, he said, “were able to emphasize what we know about how this virus is transmitted.”

For example, Father Menke said, the TI guidelines note that good hygiene (especially handwashing) and social distancing, with only brief moments of proximity between individuals, greatly reduces the risk of infection.

“You have the same sort of interaction when you go to the supermarket, and we often approach people at less than 6 feet for brief periods throughout the day,” he said. “The same thing happens at Communion.”


Washington State Prepares to Open

The Thomistic Institute’s guidelines served as the matrix for the plan devised by the Archdiocese of Seattle, the first diocese in the country to deal with the coronavirus.

Despite the fact that the Seattle area had been considered a hot zone for infection, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee began easing restrictions at the beginning of May. But according to Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg, who heads up the archdiocese’s COVID-19 taskforce, the governor’s proposed four-phase “Safe Start Washington” recovery plan doesn’t satisfactorily address Catholic needs in the state. Bishop Mueggenborg participated in a May 14 phone conference with Inslee, who discussed his plan with 25 Christian and non-Christian religious leaders from around the state.

The phone conference “was a little frustrating, to be honest, because the reality is that non-sacramental religions don’t have the same need to gather that we do as Catholics,” Bishop Mueggenborg said. “So there’s not an understanding that our gathering is not about fellowship; our gathering is about a personal encounter with [Christ in] the Eucharist, which is not something we can mediate on our own, in our homes or by watching a video on TV. It’s always an interpersonal experience by the grace of Christ through the ordained minister and within the context of the community.”

On the same day as the conference, the Washington bishops sent the governor a proposed plan for reopening public Masses in the state — not to seek permission, but to keep lines of communication open, Bishop Mueggenborg said.

“All five Washington bishops signed on the proposal submitted to the governor’s office for his review and recommendations,” the bishop said. “But we did not ask for his approval. As a religious institution, we do not see it as the responsibility of the government to approve our liturgical procedures.”

At press time, the governor had not replied to the proposal, published by the Washington State Catholic Conference, a copy of which was obtained by the Register.

In the proposal, the Washington bishops opted to distribute Communion immediately after the conclusion of Mass. According to Bishop Mueggenborg, the guidelines in general and the plan for distribution of the Eucharist in particular were based on the Thomistic Institute’s guidelines. The Washington bishops also enlisted the institute’s director, Dominican Father Dominic Legge, as a member of the working group that prepared guidelines for the Washington bishops.

“So everything we have generated regarding sacramental celebrations has been done with full cooperating and active input from the TI,” Bishop Mueggenborg said. “That ensures that we are observing the highest standards of health and sanitization as well as the highest standards of liturgical reverence and fidelity to our sacramental theology.”

The Washington bishops decided to distribute Communion after Mass, Bishop Mueggenborg said, “so that we would be able to practice unusual hygiene standards that would not be appropriate within the context of the sacred liturgy itself.”

Health and safety are important considerations in the Washington proposal, but they must be balanced within the context of the liturgy by a sense of reverence, Bishop Mueggenborg added. 

“We received the sacred liturgy from the Lord; we don’t make it up ourselves,” he said, adding, “We want to ensure that the celebration of Mass can take place with the utmost reverence, without diminishing concern for people’s health in the state.”


Wisconsin Plan in Hand

Reverence is also a primary concern for the bishops of Wisconsin — especially now that the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on May 13 that parts of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer-at-Home Order” were unconstitutional. The ruling cited two main issues: that the law was issued by a political appointee of the governor; and that the governor does not have carte blanche power to restrict commerce or travel within the Dairy State.

The law sought to extend restrictions to May 26, but with the court ruling, the Catholic Church in Wisconsin — the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Green Bay, La Crosse, Superior and Madison dioceses — recognized that an easing of those restrictions was coming sooner than anticipated.

“The goal before the ruling was to get a plan together to implement by May 31, Pentecost,” said Christopher Carstens, director of the Office of Sacred Worship for the Diocese of La Crosse. “That’s still the plan, but now it’s a matter of waiting, instead of anticipating the restrictions being lifted.”  

Fortunately, throughout the Wisconsin lockdown, begun two months ago, Carstens’ ordinary, Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse, and the other Wisconsin bishops had already been consulting with one another and with their priests and other experts on the liturgy, Carstens added.

As a result, each of the Wisconsin dioceses has developed a set of guidelines with the help of the TI guidelines provided by the USCCB, Carstens told the Register. The Diocese of La Crosse guidelines state that when public Masses resume on Pentecost Sunday, Communion will be distributed during Mass, although the guidelines also make clear that no one is obligated to receive Communion.

According to Carstens, Bishop Callahan chose this option — as provided in the guidelines from the Thomistic Institute — because it maintained a sense of unity and reverence in the Mass.

“None of the options is perfect, but putting all things in a balance, I think this is the best because there’s real wisdom in the Church keeping connected the sacrifice at the altar and the reception of the sacrifice in the Mass,” he said. “The sacrifice and reception of the fruits of that sacrifice are meant to go together — and they should be, if it can be practically, safely and prudently held together, in the same celebration.”

While the benefits of maintaining health and safety in Mass may be obvious, Carstens noted, reverence — in the Mass itself or in receiving Communion outside of Mass — also redounds to the faithful, in terms of their spiritual health.

“While pastors make their best efforts to bring Christ to the faithful in Holy Communion, it is important that reverence continues to be a factor,” Carstens told the Register. “Maintaining conditions of reverence will only help us grow from our encounter with Christ in Holy Communion, while those that are contrary to this great meeting will diminish its saving power in us.”

  Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.

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