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Archdiocese of Baltimore relaxes social distancing for Masses

Updated May 15, 9:45 a.m. to add new information regarding the elimination of the mask mandate and to correct a typographical error.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced May 13 that, effective immediately, parishes would be allowed to reduce social distancing in churches from 6 feet to 3 feet between congregants from different households.

The move came after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order May 9 lifting capacity restrictions for houses of worship and another May 12 lifting remaining capacity restrictions for all other venues.

The announcement said that in light of these orders, “the Archdiocese of Baltimore is taking an incremental approach to increasing the capacity of our churches..”

The archdiocese also announced May 15 that because Hogan had lifted the indoor mask mandate, masks would no longer be required on parish campuses in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, unless it is required by the local jurisdiction, effective immediately. “Wearing masks is still strongly encouraged for those who are not vaccinated. Social distancing of 3 feet is still required inside of buildings,” the archdiocesan announcement said. It noted that the archdiocesan Department of Catholic Schools will issue separate guidance in the coming days.

The determining factors in permitting the reduction in social distance space include:

The announcement said, “The 3-feet option is available as long as the Maryland community transmission rates remain low, and the percentage of vaccinated individuals continues to increase.”

The dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation, issued by Archbishop William E. Lori when the pandemic began, remains in place for now.

The archdiocese noted that some in the parishes will welcome the change but that others might be hesitant to adapt to the newly permitted requirements.

The announcement reinforced that all the currently available vaccines are effective against serious illness, hospitalization and death and asked parish leaders to continue to encourage parishioners to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican have noted that it is morally acceptable to receive a vaccine. Archbishop Lori has called getting a vaccine “an act of charity and love.”

Tom Alban, director of Risk Management for the archdiocese, noted that due to a capacity limit of 50 percent for worship spaces and other venues in Baltimore City, the archdiocese would allow city parishes to increase from 33 percent capacity to 50 percent, with at least 3-foot spacing between household groups.

He said each parish will implement the new social distance requirement differently. “It will be a matter of the church’s design along with the number of attendees who are coming as families that can be sat together versus the number attending alone or as couples,” Alban said. “This needs to be incremental moves.”

Pastors welcome changes

Father Keith Boisvert, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Frederick, said he is thrilled with reducing the distancing requirement.

The parish has had people sign up on its website to attend Mass, but with the 6-foot distancing, had to turn people away, even with extra chairs in the narthex.

The church can hold about 700 people, but before the pandemic, there might have been 400 to 500 people at a given Mass on the weekend. With the 6-foot restrictions, the parish could accommodate only about 200 people per Mass.

“I understand that some parishes were not turning people away, but we were,” he said.

The pastor said the parish would maintain about one-quarter of the church at the 6-foot spacing to accommodate those who may not be comfortable in closer quarters. However, he said the parish won’t feel the need to continue the sign-ups, since he believes it will have room for all those who want to come to Mass.

Father Boisvert said the changes would be announced the weekend of May 15-16, and implemented the next weekend, in time for the feast of Pentecost. “It’s a great way to celebrate Pentecost: it’s the birthday of the church and a rebirth for our worship.”

The church has holy water fonts that flow from the walls, and the parish hopes to turn those back on. “And we can start the offertory procession again,” he said.

The parish is also eager to restart the children’s ministries that are run concurrently with Sunday Masses. “We have to get everybody trained and see if we can do that again.”

At the pastorate of St. Agnes in Catonsville and St. William of York, Ten Hills, Father Isaac Makovo said attendance at the Masses has been climbing steadily. “People are coming more but we have not turned anyone away,” he said.

He welcomed the new guidance and said the parish would implement it immediately. “There is no point in waiting because the more we wait, the more people will feel like it’s OK to wait.” He noted the axiom that it takes three weeks to build a new habit, and people have gotten into the habit of attending Mass online. “It’s time for us to create a new habit of coming back,” Father Makovo said.

“We are trying to create that sense of normalcy and help people feel comfortable,” he said, noting that bringing people back and assuring them that it is safe to return will require as much time and energy as had to be spent in the last year urging people to be cautious and wear a mask.

The rates of cases going down and the number of vaccinations increasing are proof, he said, that things are getting better. “We’re feeling good and we’re in a good place,” Father Makovo said.

“New spirit’

Monsignor Richard Hilgartner, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Cockeysville, said the timing of the announcement couldn’t be better because the parish had been almost hitting capacity at every Mass.

“Each weekend since Easter, I saw people who said this was their first time back. Now that they are vaccinated, they wanted to come back,” he said.

Like St. Katharine Drexel Parish, St. Joseph will implement the changes the weekend of May 22-23, since people have already signed up for weekend Masses May 15-16.

“Let Pentecost Sunday be the new spirit and renewal,” Monsignor Hilgartner said. His parish will also set aside one of its three sections for the 6-foot distance – every other pew – for those who may not be comfortable with the closer distance.

He said the parish has been conducting a four-week series of messages leading up to Pentecost to get people to recommit to involvement in the parish by participating in Mass, serving as a lector or catechist or other ministries.

A big event, “Rise Up,” will be held at the parish May 23, 6:30 p.m., with ministries providing information in the hall or other areas of the parish on how to join or rejoin either immediately or when some ministries pick up again in the fall. Social activities will be held outdoors at the same time.

“We’re hoping to build that momentum and get people ready for re-engagement, with at least returning to Mass, if not more,” Monsignor Hilgartner said.

The parish will also provide eucharistic adoration with Benediction June 6, the feast of Corpus Christi,” to mark the launch of the archdiocese’s Year of the Eucharist.

The archdiocese also informed parishes that they can resume child care and nursery services during Masses so that parents can attend. All adults and those supervising should be vaccinated and follow coronavirus protocols for child care centers.

Parishes may also resume, if they have not already done so, specific children’s Masses or children’s Liturgy of the Word. Parishes were reminded to follow best safety practices, especially as the children gather in front of the sanctuary or gather as a group by, for example,
designating a section for families that will have children participating, to limit movement throughout the church.

Catholic Charities of Maryland also announced May 14 that it would resume on-site meal service at three of its locations:

Email Christopher Gunty at editor@CatholicReview.org

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