Anticipating the day when the functions of the church can be reopened to the public in a gradual way that protects the health of the general population, leaders of the Archdiocese of Baltimore are developing post-quarantine guidelines and protocols regarding liturgy, the sacraments and related concerns.
Bishop Adam J. Parker, vicar general for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said a subcommittee of the archdiocesan coronavirus taskforce is expected to make its recommendations to the full taskforce in the coming days.
If approved by the taskforce and Archbishop William E. Lori, the recommendations will be distributed to pastors, pastoral life directors and parish leaders to help navigate what could be a thorny and challenging process for reopening in an age of social distancing.
“We’re really grateful for the patience our faithful parishioners, parish leaders and pastors have shown throughout the pandemic,” Bishop Parker said. “We ask for that to continue because it is such a complex matter and there is no precedent for it. We’ve practically rewritten the entire archdiocesan policy manual over the past five or six weeks. Now, in some senses, we are going to be writing it again for the phases of reopening.”
The new archdiocesan plan will be informed by the three-stage process of reopening the State of Maryland outlined by Gov. Larry Hogan April 24.
The governor’s plan, which is dependent on a 14-day decline in COVID-19 hospitalization cases before being enacted, would begin with lifting the statewide stay-at-home order and then gradually resume public activities and gatherings. No timeline has been outlined for when that reopening process will begin.
“In stage one, we anticipate that we would see our churches open once again for private prayer,” Bishop Parker said, noting that there would be social distancing requirements in place and limits on the number of people who could gather.
“We would envision in stage one that we would allow for confessions to occur, as well as for weddings and funerals and baptisms,” he added, again noting that there would likely be strict limits to the number of people in attendance.
Bishop Parker said the archdiocese is likely to give pastors latitude to offer the sacrament of reconciliation either in church buildings or via the “drive-through” practice adopted by some parishes in the early stages of the pandemic but later discontinued.
To protect the public health, the sacraments are currently available only to those whose death is imminent in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Public Masses will most likely resume in stage two, Bishop Parker said, with social distancing practices in place and limits on attendance.
Even when permission is given to again hold public Masses, Bishop Parker said there may still be some parishes that will be unable to make those liturgies available. That’s because limits on attendance as well as other factors may complicate the process or make it unsafe.
Bishop Parker noted that at the outset of the pandemic, when Masses were limited to 250 people or fewer, some large parishes such as St. Louis in Clarksville decided to cancel the public celebration of Mass because their liturgies attracted such large numbers that it was impossible to manage limiting the congregation to 250.
Bishop Parker said pastors will have discretion to work with their regional vicars to determine what offerings of Masses are best for their specific faith communities and to collaborate with other parishes to make Masses available regionally.
While Masses will eventually be offered in a limited way, Bishop Parker said there initially will be no obligation to attend Mass, only the opportunity to do so.
When public Masses resume, Bishop Parker said many aspects of the liturgy will be different from prior to the onset of the pandemic because of social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The offertory procession with the bread and wine for consecration might not take place, he said, and priests and deacons might not be able to greet people before and after Mass in ways they have typically done. The Sign of Peace might be omitted or limited in some way, and the Precious Blood is not likely to be offered in the distribution of the Eucharist.
“It may even look different in terms of how the priest and deacon enter and leave the church and also how Communion lines are formed,” Bishop Parker said.
Bishop Parker noted that parishes will receive detailed guidance on how to distribute Communion in a safe way. Plans are also being developed for how parish offices will reopen and what to do with summer programs such as Vacation Bible School . The guidelines will be made available to the public on the archdiocesan website, archbalt.org.
In developing plans for reopening, the Archdiocese of Baltimore is working with other dioceses of the region so there is a coordinated approach, Bishop Parker said. Those dioceses include the Archdiocese of Washington and the suffragan dioceses within the Province of Baltimore – the Dioceses of Arlington, Va.; Richmond, Va., Wheeling-Charlestown, W.Va., and Wilmington, Del.
In the last several weeks, Archbishop Lori has held Zoom videoconference meetings with regional groups of priests, getting their input and observations about reopening. In addition to consulting all the priests of the archdiocese, he has received input from the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, the Presbyteral Council and parish catechetical leaders.
“When we reopen, we will do it with a lot of guidance,” Archbishop Lori said.
The archbishop thanked pastors for the work they have been doing reaching out to parishioners via phone calls, email, text messages and traditional postal mail. He noted that many of them have had “crash courses” in learning new forms of technology, such as offering online Masses, Bible studies and other electronic resources for the parishioners. Priests have also worked hard to maintain outreach programs such as food pantries, he said.
“It’s really been extraordinary,” Archbishop Lori told an April 27 meeting of 25 priests. “I’m deeply grateful for your pastoral generosity and for the patience it takes to rethink things we are accustomed to doing in person.”
Many pastors told the archbishop they intend to keep livestreaming Masses even after restrictions of the celebration of public Masses are lifted. They reported significant numbers of people tuning in to the liturgies, including people who would not normally come to Mass. Some noted that there has also been increased numbers of people who have participated in online parish meetings as compared to the number of people who previously gathered in person.
Bishop Parker told the Catholic Review he recognizes the spiritual hunger many Catholics have experienced over the last several weeks in being unable to receive the Eucharist.
“It just reinforces how devoted people are to the sacraments,” he said, “and how much strength and grace they derive from the sacraments. Our overarching principle is the safety of our people – both those who would receive the sacraments as well as those who administer them. And we have to make that our primary responsibility at this point. We’re eager for people to receive the sacraments once again – just as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org
For more on the archdiocesan response to the coronavirus pandemic, click here.