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Why must churches close and other coronavirus questions answered

Our decision to close churches and make other changes to help stop the spread of COVID-19 has left many of the faithful with questions. Below you will find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions to the archdiocese. We will update this page as more questions arise.

Q. Grocery stores and other essential businesses remain open under Gov. Larry Hogan’s shelter-in-place order. Why must churches close?

A. Health officials have confirmed that the best way to prevent community spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep people apart. Open churches invite gatherings of people and contribute to the spread of the disease, especially when some people believe themselves to be healthy but could be infected with the virus and spreading it to those around them or inadvertently spreading the virus to surfaces such as those in churches.

Q. We have had many requests for confession to be held over the phone or through other remote methods. Why must confession be held in person?

A. Canon law does not allow for valid confessions to be heard in any forum other than physically in person, involving the priest and penitent. It is no longer deemed safe to administer the Sacrament during the present health crisis, therefore the Sacrament is only available to those for whom death may be imminent.

Q. What if I cannot go to confession right now because of the pandemic?

A. Pope Francis addressed this issue in his remarks on March 20, 2020: “But many people today would tell me, ‘Father, where can I find a priest, a confessor, because I can’t leave the house? And I want to make peace with the Lord, I want him to embrace me, I want the Father’s embrace.’”

The pope said his response would be, “Do what the Catechism (of the Catholic Church) says. It is very clear: If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart.”

Make an act of contrition, the pope said, and promise God, “‘I will go to confession afterward, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, N. 1452, says: “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ – contrition of charity. Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.”

“As the catechism teaches,” Pope Francis said, “you can draw near to God’s forgiveness without having a priest at hand. Think about it. This is the moment.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary also addressed this issue in his March 20, 2020 note on sacramental confession. It urged priests to remind their faithful that when they find themselves with the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution they can make an act of contrition directly to God in prayer. If they are sincere and promise to go to confession as soon as possible they “obtain the forgiveness of sins, even mortal sins” according to the note.

Q. Before the governor’s order, parishes were holding private prayer at churches with less than 10 people at a time, following the guidelines of health officials. Why does that have to stop when the churches were adhering to the gatherings under 10 people rule?

A. While legally permitted, keeping churches open invites the spread of the virus and also creates conditions that not all parishes are able to manage with respect to the number of people present. In addition, some parishes have adoration chapels that are too small for people to maintain proper social distancing. It was decided that the most prudent and safest course of action was to temporarily close churches until the community spread of the virus has slowed.

Q. How does the closure of churches affect weddings, funerals and baptisms?

A. The Sacrament of Baptism has been temporarily suspended, with the exception of cases where the baptized is in danger of death. Funeral Masses are not currently permitted, though graveside committal services are able to take place with no more than 10 people present with the appropriate observance of social distancing. Priests have been asked to work with couples to reschedule weddings to a later date. No couple may be married without a State-issued marriage license.

Q. If a newborn has an underlying health condition, can a parent perform a baptism themselves if a priest or deacon isn’t available?  What about parents who are concerned that their child may have to wait several months before their child is baptized?  May they baptize their babies themselves?

A. Canon law states that any baptized person may administer the Sacrament of Baptism with the required Trinitarian form to an unbaptized individual who is in danger of death. If this is done, it should immediately be reported to the local parish. Otherwise, the Church will work to reschedule baptisms as quickly as possible once the current health crisis subsides.

Q. On what conditions can a priest administer the Anointing of the Sick?

A. Anointings of those who are ill and hospitalized are only to be performed by priests who are hospital chaplains. All other anointings are temporarily suspended, unless the person being anointed is actively dying.

Q. Palm Sunday is approaching. Will the archdiocese distribute palms to the faithful?

A. Out of an abundance of caution, palms will not be distributed to parishioners for Palm Sunday. However, parish priests have the option to bless the palms and distribute them at a later date when the pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Q. Will the chrism Mass be celebrated?

A. Archbishop Lori will celebrate the Chrism Mass with the faithful and the presbyterate at a later date. Parish priests will use their existing stocks of Chrism oil to anoint the sick.

Q. During this uncertain time, we need the church more than ever. How can we stay close to our parishes while still remaining at home?

A. The archdiocese has many resources posted on its website to help the faithful through this difficult time. There, you can find a complete list of online Masses as well as information on when and where Mass will be broadcast on television and radio. Archbishop William Lori is delivering daily Lenten reflections during the holy season. The video messages can be found on Facebook, SoundCloud and YouTube each day during Lent. Also, the archdiocese has launched a webpage “At Home with Your Faith,” filled with helpful tips on how to worship while sheltering in place. Topics include a refresher on how to pray the rosary or instructions on how to set up your own personal worship space.

Q. We usually give to the church on Sunday using the offertory basket. How can I support my parish from home?

A. The archdiocese has launched a secure webpage to enable parishioners to donate to their parishes online. We understand the coronavirus pandemic has caused economic hardship for many people, but if you have not been affected financially, considering giving to your local parish. With churches closed and Masses being held online, parishes are experiencing a steep drop-off in giving.

Q. What is the special indulgence recently granted by the Apostolic Penitentiary for those who are sick and their caregivers during the time of the COVID-19 outbreak?

A. On March 20, 2020 the Apostolic Penitentiary issued a document that noted the fear, uncertainty, and the physical and spiritual suffering people around the world are experiencing because of the pandemic.

The decree said, “This Apostolic Penitentiary, with the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, trusting in the worlds of Christ the Lord and looking with a spirit of faith at the epidemic underway, which should be lived in a tone of personal conversion, grants the gift of indulgences” to a variety of people in a variety of circumstances.

An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment a person is due for sins that have been forgiven.

Praying for the dying who cannot receive the sacrament of anointing, the decree said the church entrusted them to God’s mercy and drew on the merits of the communion of saints to grant a plenary indulgence to Catholics on the verge of death, as long as they “habitually recited prayers during their lifetime.”

If that is not possible, the decree said, they should at least recite the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and invoke the help of Mary, “offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and of charity toward others” and with a determination to go to confession, receive the Eucharist and pray for the intentions of the pope as soon as possible.

“Health care workers, family members and those who, following the example of the good Samaritan, assist those sick with the coronavirus, exposing themselves to the risk of contagion,” also receive the plenary indulgence, it said.

The decree also grants the indulgence to any Catholic who visits the Blessed Sacrament, “reads sacred Scripture for at least a half hour,” recites the rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet “to implore Almighty God for an end to the epidemic, the relief of those who are afflicted and eternal salvation for those the Lord has called to himself.”

The faithful can claim the indulgence for themselves or offer it on behalf of someone who has died.

Q. What is a plenary indulgence?

A. An indulgence is not a quick ticket to heaven, as St. John Paul II once said; rather, it is an aid for the real conversion that leads to eternal happiness. Sins are forgiven through the sacrament of penance, but then there is a kind of punishment still due the sinner, the late pope explained during a general audience in 1999.

God’s fatherly love “does not exclude chastisement, even though this always should be understood in the context of a merciful justice which reestablishes the order violated,” he said. The pope had said the “temporal” punishment that remains after forgiveness is a grace aimed at wiping away the “residues of sin,” offering the reformed sinner the chance of complete healing through “a journey of purification” that can take place in this life or in purgatory.

Q. Why is an indulgence granted by the Church?

A. The granting of an indulgence by the church is “the expression of the church’s full confidence of being heard by the Father when, in view of Christ’s merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints, she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace,” in the words of St. John Paul II. He went on to say that an indulgence, then, is the result of the abundance of God’s mercy, which he offers to humanity through Jesus Christ and through the church.

Special indulgences have often been offered during times of great crisis from disease or other serious difficulties.

Q. What should I do if I want to seek an indulgence?

A. By God’s grace, participation in a prayer or action that has an indulgence attached to it brings about the necessary restoration and reparation without the suffering that would normally accompany it. It frees a person from the punishment their sinfulness warrants as it is a remission of the temporal punishment a person is due for sins that have been forgiven.

But this gift cannot be received automatically or simply by fulfilling a few exterior requirements nor can it be approached with a superficial attitude, St. John Paul said. The reception of an indulgence depends on “our turning away from sin and our conversion to God,” he said. That is why there are several conditions for receiving an indulgence: — A spirit detached from sin. — Sacramental confession as soon as possible. — Eucharistic communion as soon as possible. — Prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions

Have more questions? Email them here.

For more information and resources about the archdiocesan response to the coronavirus pandemic, click here.