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Tricky questions for when public Masses resume

Archbishop Wenski, Florida bishops figuring out 'new normal' to guarantee health of the faithful

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MIAMI | In a recent letter to archdiocesan priests, Archbishop Thomas Wenski tries to answer the question: When can we resume the normal liturgical life in our parishes?

Archbishop Thomas Wenski prays over the consecrated bread and wine during an Ash Wednesday Mass at Archbishop McCarthy High School in 2016. Florida's bishops are trying to figure out how to resume the public celebration of Masses without contributing to the spread of the coronavirus or endangering the lives of parishioners who may become ill with COVID-19.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski prays over the consecrated bread and wine during an Ash Wednesday Mass at Archbishop McCarthy High School in 2016. Florida's bishops are trying to figure out how to resume the public celebration of Masses without contributing to the spread of the coronavirus or endangering the lives of parishioners who may become ill with COVID-19.

“I know all of you are anxious to do so,” the archbishop wrote in his April 20, 2020 letter. “However, after consulting with civil authorities, we are not yet able to resume ‘public assemblies.’”

The archbishop then points out questions that need to be answered before resuming “normal liturgical life,” as he predicts that “social distancing will be part of the new normal” until a coronavirus vaccine is available.

Those questions include:

  • Would churches need to take each congregant's temperature before admitting them into the assembly?
  • If people must be spaced six feet apart, what do churches do with "overflow”?
  • Or do churches admit only a certain number of parishioners who RSVP confirming their attendance?
  • Would everybody in church be required to wear a mask, since singing, or even talking, can spray droplets from someone's mouth?
  • Would the priest and others distributing Communion be required, for their protection, to wear a mask and gloves during distribution?
  • Would the pews have to be sanitized before and after every Mass?

Finally, churches would have to continue to encourage the elderly and those with underlying health conditions to stay home and self-isolate. That includes a significant number of priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. “So the archdiocese and parishes may have to make provisions to relieve them,” Archbishop Wenski wrote.

Complicating all this, he added, is “the lack of appropriate testing that is accurate, quick and cost effective,” in order identify those who are asymptomatic but infectious.

“As you can see, these are difficult hurdles for us to navigate as we emerge on the other side of this crisis,” the archbishop wrote.

 

PANDEMIC EPICENTER

He noted that Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are the “epicenter of the pandemic” in Florida, accounting for over half of the infections statewide (20,969 out of a total of 35,463 as of May 1) and over half of the deaths (766 out of a total of 1,364). As such, the three counties were excluded from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call for a “phase one” re-opening of most of the state beginning May 4. (The Archdiocese of Miami encompasses Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.)

The archbishop noted that social distancing and stay-at-home measures seem to have “flattened the curve” so far. But in a follow-up letter sent out May 2, he reiterated that “until there’s a vaccine we (all) risk catching the virus sooner or later. For many, especially someone in relative good health, it will be at best an unpleasant experience; for those with underlying conditions, catching the virus could prove to be much more dangerous.”

Two staff members, seated rows apart, are the only ones present at Miami's St. Mary Cathedral as Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, April 5, 2020. How will parishes maintain social distancing once Masses with a congregation resume, given the fact that a coronavirus vaccine is months away from development and widespread distribution?

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Two staff members, seated rows apart, are the only ones present at Miami's St. Mary Cathedral as Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, April 5, 2020. How will parishes maintain social distancing once Masses with a congregation resume, given the fact that a coronavirus vaccine is months away from development and widespread distribution?

Florida’s bishops are thinking along the same lines. They hold a conference call every Monday to decide on a course of action and work through all the contingencies.

Bishop William Wack of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee posted an update April 30 in which he stressed that even when Masses with the congregation resume “no one should expect to be able to attend Mass with regularity” given the need to maintain social distancing. And, he added, even if churches follow the best health practices, anyone who attends public Mass needs to understand that they “will still be at risk.”

Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, in a message also posted April 30, said, “My hope is to resume public Masses within the month of May. One possibility that I am exploring is to first begin with public worship Monday through Saturday when fewer people typically attend Mass.

“I am not sure if this will happen just yet, but there is one thing I do know with certainty. When we return to our churches, we should all expect changes at Mass, to ensure everyone’s health and safety, which is a top priority,” Bishop Parkes said.

 

GRADUAL REOPENING

On May 1, the Diocese of Orlando announced a gradual reopening of most churches beginning May 11, with people allowed to come and pray and receive the sacrament of penance. Daily Masses open to parishioners will resume May 18, but Sunday Masses will not be celebrated with the public until the weekend of May 30-31.

Chapels and adoration chapels will remain closed throughout the month, as will the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, located near Disney World.

At each stage, the Orlando guidelines stress that “people may be denied entrance upon arrival or asked to leave the church if the numbers become greater than social distancing would allow.”

“Our goal is, of course, to reunite our people with Mass and the regular participation in the sacraments,” Archbishop Wenski wrote in this April 20 letter. But other parts of Florida, such as Arcadia or Lake City, “do not face the same challenges we face” in South Florida.

“Neither does Las Cruces,” he added, referring to the first diocese in the U.S. to announce the resumption of Masses, the diocese headed by Miami’s former auxiliary, Bishop Peter Baldacchino. 

“Until there is a vaccine, the coronavirus will continue to infect people,” Archbishop Wenski wrote. “Most people will recover, some will die. But we do not want to be responsible for a greater spread.”

In that April 20 letter, the archbishop also answered some of the questions local Catholics continue to ask about the “closing” of churches. You can read those questions and answers in our updated Coronavirus Q and A, available here.

Comments from readers

Susan - 05/17/2020 02:53 PM
Parishes in other states are beginning weekend masses outside in the parking lots of the church where there is more space and more social distancing. That could be an idea for Miami.
Jean Perez - 05/16/2020 09:43 AM
Do we really think God is limited by the sacraments? I feel sometimes as Catholics we try to put God in a box and think that there is no other way for God to reach us. If I believe in a God who is in all things and say that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then I know that even if we don't temporarily receive the sacraments God's graces are given to us, not only as much but am sure even more. Again God gives us the sacraments but is not bound by them...if not God would not be God. Ultimately faith and science are not separate. God speaks to us through the knowledge of the scientists and medical experts who are seeking ways to deal with the current pandemic. It would be insolent of us to think that we can ignore this and just trust God to protect us when God gives us wisdom and knowledge to guide our actions.
Anthony Cuesta - 05/15/2020 06:04 AM
It is better to die with the sacraments than to live without them. We need the sacraments.
William - 05/10/2020 08:21 PM
I very much would like to return to Mass. I have streamed the weekly masses and It has been a blessing,but it is still not a substitute for physically attending mass.That being said we can not just open our churches as if nothing has ever happened. I think we can have daily masses with a limited number of people and clergy allowed.Sunday services can continue streaming so we can continue social distancing for people who are in the high risk groups and those who feel uncomfortable being in a large group. Weddings, Funreals.Baptisms should be limited to immediate family for the foreseeable future.
Anonymous - 05/10/2020 05:32 AM
Until there is a vaccine, all masses should have very limited amount of people, with live streaming of the mass at the same time. Communion is something people may go back to once in a blue moon, as they have gone without it long enough to forgo it probably for the rest of their lives. If churches are to be open, let it be for confessions only, as to allow social distancing. Masks are to be worn by all or no admittance to ensure the safety of all people. People may not go back to mass, especially after receiving the basic sacraments (baptism, 1st communion, 1st confession, and confirmation), which is understandable, and shouldn't be held against them as everyone leaves the church at one time or another. If people, in ministry, ordained, or laity, have a disliking for masks to be worn in church, then they need to stay home, or conduct mass in the privacy of the closed chapels.
STEPHEN CANTIN - 05/06/2020 07:04 PM
I believe the re-opening of churches will have to be very slow and gradual. For example, only daily Mass with a minimum amount of people as possible; the priest and all attending must wear masks. no altar servers, the priest must be alone at the altar except for maybe a lector, etc. Sunday masses should stay online only (because it will be more crowded) until it's been observed or reported by authorities that new infections are at a minimum. And find ways to have confession available while still respecting the health protocols. Alot of things to be considered because not all parishes are the same; some are huge buildings, others are small or medium sized.
Gustavo - 05/04/2020 11:31 PM
This article exemplifies what has infected the Church for the last 50 years or so, Naturalism. The philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted. The Shepherds **must** feed the sheep in good times and bad. And help them get to Heaven. The Church has become so disfigured. It is hard to distinguish it from a political party. Show some supernatural faith for once !! Hopefully, my comment will not be deleted because it’s the truth.

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