Holy Orders, Baptism, Confirmation Guidelines Help Dioceses Navigate COVID-19

As June is traditionally the ‘ordination season’ for most U.S. dioceses, the guidelines from the Thomistic Institute on holy orders couldn’t have come at a better time.

Above, priests from the Rio Grande Valley wear face masks against the spread of the coronavirus as they attend a priestly ordination Mass June 20 at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle in San Juan, Texas.
Above, priests from the Rio Grande Valley wear face masks against the spread of the coronavirus as they attend a priestly ordination Mass June 20 at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle in San Juan, Texas. (photo: Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP)

The Catholic Church in the United States is finding a bit more room to breathe in its liturgical life now that state and national health officials are loosening the restrictions designed to hamper the spread of COVID-19.

With the national downward trend in coronavirus cases, dioceses are encouraging the faithful to return to public celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. But since some restrictions and precautions remain a part of everyday life — such as social distancing, protective masks and hand sanitizing — U.S. bishops continue to draft or revise guidelines on these public celebrations.

This work has become a little easier for bishops now that in the past week the Thomistic Institute (TI) in Washington, D.C., has published on its website COVID-19-related guidelines for baptism, confirmation and holy orders.

In late May, led by Dominican Father Dominic Legge, the Thomistic Institute released its guidelines on holy orders, since updated on June 14, the same day that it published guidelines on confirmation. Three days prior, on June 11, it also published guidelines on baptism.

As June is traditionally the “ordination season” for most U.S. dioceses, the guidelines on holy orders couldn’t have come at a better time. But even dioceses that had already ordained priests before the TI guidelines for holy orders were available had found the Thomistic Institute a valuable resource. Both in formulating their own guidelines and in planning for ordinations, some of these dioceses consulted with doctors and also found guidance through earlier TI documents, such as its guidelines on celebrating the Eucharist.


Doctor Deacon

One of the main contributors to all the TI guidelines, Dr. Timothy Flanigan is a professor of medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and an infectious-disease physician practicing in that state. He is also a permanent deacon serving the Diocese of Providence at St. Theresa and St. Christopher parishes in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Putting both his medical and ministerial expertise to work for the Thomistic Institute, Deacon Flanigan has been instrumental in ensuring that the institute’s guidelines strike the right balance between safety for the faithful and reverence for the sacraments.

“The basis of the guidelines are the Centers for Disease Control’s own guidelines to decrease transmission of the virus,” he said.

But equally important, Deacon Flanigan added, is the care with which dioceses continue to provide the sacraments. “The sacrament needs to be celebrated legitimately and our Church gives us sacramental guidance,” he said. “We are an incarnational Church: Jesus lived here on earth and dealt with real bread, real oil, real wine, real water. These things aren’t abstract ideas but visible expressions of God’s presence and grace among us.”

This same physicality of the sacraments, however, poses a challenge to bishops and pastors planning ordinations, confirmations and baptisms, Deacon Flanigan said.

“We’ve been conditioned not to touch others during the pandemic, but all three of these sacraments involve touch,” he said.

Accordingly, each of the TI guidelines seeks to minimize the threat posed by physical contact, Deacon Flanigan told the Register, while also acknowledging that brief and occasional contact between persons does not pose a great risk, as the CDC has also pointed out.

As the TI guidelines for holy orders note, “the Ordination rite itself requires only a few moments of close physical proximity between the bishop, the ordinands and concelebrating priests. If all parties are feeling well, do not have an elevated temperature, and do not manifest any respiratory or other symptoms, these brief moments of physical proximity do not present an unreasonable risk.”


Sacramental Precautions

According to Deacon Flanigan, each of the TI guidelines should be seen as “a living document” that is subject to revision — as the holy orders guidelines were most recently — to reflect preferred practices among dioceses and the shifting circumstances of the pandemic itself.

As with past TI guidelines, the deacon said, each of the newly published documents provides an overview of the sacrament and practical guidance for the safety of all participants in the celebration.

For example, the TI guidelines for baptism quote the CDC addressing whether water can be a conduit for the virus: “There is no evidence showing anyone has gotten COVID-19 through drinking water, recreational water or wastewater. The risk of COVID-19 transmission through water is expected to be low.”

“The principles are how to be careful and thoughtful to decrease transmission in that regard,” Deacon Flanigan said. “For instance, one would not want to reuse the same water time and time again for multiple baptisms, even though water is not considered to be a significant transmitter of the virus.”

Nonetheless, Deacon Flanigan added, there are minor but considerable risks involved in the blessings and anointings bestowed on the newly baptized and those to be confirmed, although the guidelines for each provide clear parameters of safety.

“The sacred oils used for anointing — which [all include] olive oil — is not hospitable to the growth of the virus, so we don’t think it will be a vehicle for viral transmission,” he said. “The main way this virus spreads is through secretions from the mouth and nose, from someone that is infected. In order to decrease that transmission, one utilizes good hand hygiene throughout the ceremony.”

Likewise, in preparing for holy orders, Deacon Flanigan said, bishops should take note of the two main precautions outlined in the TI guidelines: hand sanitization and self-screening for signs of viral infection. (This latter precaution appears in the updated guidelines, replacing a precaution in the original draft of the document which recommended 14-day self-quarantining before ordination for those who may have been exposed to high-risk populations, such as a seminarian working with the homeless in a soup-kitchen ministry. The Register received no reply from the Thomistic Institute regarding the reason for the change.) Hand sanitization is an especially important precaution during ordination, Deacon Flanigan added.

“A key moment in the celebration of holy orders, for example, is when the bishop places his hands over the ordinand’s hands, which signifies the tight bond and fidelity between bishop and priest,” he said. “This bond is confirmed in the sacrament of ordination, which involves direct contact between the two individuals. Either the bishop or ordinand ought not have any symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and both ought to utilize good hand hygiene before that takes place.”


Diocesan Plans

In the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, planning for ordinations began last Christmas, according to Father John Grant, director of the diocese’s Office of Sacred Worship. At Holy Family Cathedral, Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa ordained two men as transitional deacons on June 6, and on July 18, he will ordain eight men as permanent deacons.

On June 26 at the cathedral, he will be ordaining two men as priests for the diocese. According to Father Grant, the TI guidelines helped integrate Bishop Konderla’s concerns for safety into the planning process by providing “some helpful options. We didn’t actually choose to do anything more than what they had suggested, but we didn’t do everything they suggested either.”

As anticipated by the TI guidelines, there was one particularly painful part of the planning, Father Grant said. For, while restrictions are slowly being relaxed, COVID-19 still presents a challenge to public worship. Because Oklahoma restrictions limit public gatherings to one-third of a building’s capacity, Father Grant told the Register, the ordinandi were forced to reduce the number of family and friends attending the ordinations.

“The cathedral’s capacity is around 800, so we could only invite about 260 people — one-third the capacity,” he said. “The two guys being ordained priests this year are crestfallen that they had to pare down their guest list. At the same time, as they prepare to enter a life where they won’t always get what they want, they’ve been happy to obey the bishop on this matter.”

Father Grant said he was appreciative that the TI guidelines helped in maintaining the sacred character of the liturgical rites.

While the guidelines indicated where small changes in the liturgy are necessary — such as having the deacons wear masks during the fraternal kiss of peace and having the bishop sanitize his fingers between anointings — Father Grant said, the TI guidelines helped keep the celebrations relatively free of interruptions.

“We were trying to think about what we needed to do to make it safe but not overly alarmist about every single detail,” he said. “For instance, we certainly didn’t want to eliminate the promise of obedience because there was some doubt about whether it was safe for the ordinand and bishop to touch one another’s hands. So the TI guidelines gave us confidence that we were taking a prudent step — such as when the bishop sanitizes his hands before and after each ordinand makes his pledge — without having to adjust the rite to the point where we’re stripping it of its integrity.”


Homegrown Guidelines

Outgoing Archbishop Robert Carlson of the Archdiocese of St. Louis ordained six transitional deacons at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis on May 2 and two priests in the cathedral on May 23. While the archdiocesan ordinations took place before the TI guidelines were published, according to Father Donald Anstoetter, director of worship at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary who assisted in the planning and celebration of the archdiocesan ordinations, the document is valuable if only for helping other dioceses planning ordinations to avoid having to “reinvent the wheel.”

“I wish we had [the TI guidelines] about a month ago when were doing ordinations in St. Louis,” he said. “They are helpful for emcees and liturgists who are planning ordinations right now. In my perusal of the guidelines, they seem eminently reasonable, in that they take seriously the health considerations, but balance those with the sacramental and liturgical considerations.”

“I also like the language where it makes clear which are reasonable and which are unreasonable risks for various things,” he added, “such as when to use masks and whether and how long individuals can be in proximity for the anointings and other elements of the ordination rite.”

Like the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, planned its ordinations without the aid of TI guidelines.

One of the first issues the diocese faced was the ordination’s location. Because of COVID-19 restrictions in Indiana, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend moved the ordination from the traditional venue of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to St. Vincent de Paul Church, the largest church in Fort Wayne, where on June 6 he ordained six men as transitional deacons and one man a priest.

A candidate lies prostrate as Bishop Kevin Rhoades, concelebrants and the faithful pray the litany of supplication during a Mass June 6 at which six deacons and one priest were ordained to serve in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. The Mass was celebrated at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Fort Wayne.  — Today’s Catholic/John Martin

According to Brian MacMichael, director of the Office of Divine Worship for Fort Wayne-South Bend, Bishop Rhoades made the move to ensure as many as possible would be able to attend the ordination.

The bishop prays the prayer of ordination for Augustine Onuoha. — Today’s Catholic/John Martin

The new priest and deacons, vicar general Father Mark Gurtner, pastor Father Daniel Scheidt and director of vocations Father Andrew Budzinski concelebrate and assist the Eucharistic liturgy.

— Today’s Catholic/John Martin

“The cathedral is large, but because of social distancing and because St. Vincent’s was larger, we changed the facility,” MacMichael told the Register.

Although diocesan planning for ordinations had already been completed by the time the TI guidelines were published, MacMichael said, the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese availed itself of TI guidance in another way.

“We were fortunate to be in touch with a number of faithful Catholic infectious-disease specialists,” MacMichael said. “So throughout our formulation of directives and planning for ordinations, we were able to run questions by them, and a few were consultants for the TI guidelines, including Dr. Thomas McGovern [a former clinical research physician for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases], who practices in Fort Wayne.”

In addition, as the diocese began planning for ordinations, MacMichael said, the TI guidelines on celebrating Mass, published in early May of this year, served as a matrix for Fort Wayne-South Bend’s ordination guidelines.

“We were certainly aware of the Mass guidelines the Thomistic Institute had put out,” he said. “We looked at them carefully, and they informed a good chunk of what we implemented. But in addition to that, we went with individual questions to these specialists who were aware of the conversations going on at the Thomistic Institute. So it was a little bit of a lifeline for me to be able to ask the specialists these questions.”

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

This story was updated after posting.