FALL RIVER, Mass. — Following Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement on May 18 allowing the resumption of services at houses of worship in Massachusetts, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., conferred with the Presbyteral Council of the Fall River Diocese to consider how best to proceed with the reopening of Catholic churches across Southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the Islands.
“The reopening for our parishes for public Masses is complex and requires careful planning and implementation,” said Bishop da Cunha. “What must be of paramount concern throughout this process of resuming public worship is the safety of our people, our priests, deacons and lay ministers.”
It was the consensus of Presbyteral Council members that some time would be needed to ensure that all parishes are prepared to meet all mandatory safety standards. In light of that, Bishop da Cunha announced that churches in the Fall River Diocese would open for Masses for the May 30-31 weekend, the feast of Pentecost in the Church’s calendar.
The bishop pointed out that the allowance of public worship in Massachusetts requires first and foremost that all necessary safety measures were in place.
In a letter to pastors sent May 22, the bishop established a lengthy set of guidelines for the safe resumption of Mass celebrations in churches this weekend.
“In order to open churches for the celebration of Masses, pastors should follow all Massachusetts guidelines for safety and social distancing and be mindful of our own Catholic traditions for reverent celebration of the Mass and Sacraments,” the bishop wrote. “These guidelines will remain in force until further notice or changes by the governor allow for or require revision. It is important to remember that these directives and guidelines are not intended to be permanent adjustments to normal practice but temporary responses to the epidemic. Reopening will not mean an immediate return to our practices prior to suspension of public Masses. Everyone’s patience, understanding and cooperation will be needed and is appreciated.
“Due to particular circumstances at each parish, the procedures for safe and reverent celebrations are left to the prudential judgment of the pastor. Charity and understanding are asked of all the faithful as parishes begin to celebrate public Masses. One parish may not be able to offer the same opportunities as a neighboring parish due to size, space limitations or other circumstances. In all cases, a pastor should communicate clearly and frequently with his parishioners about all procedures for communal celebrations.”
Beginning on the Vigil of Pentecost, Saturday evening, May 30, Masses will resume in the diocese. This includes the celebration of funeral and wedding Masses. Pastors are also allowed to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation on Catholic participants in the RCIA program, and dates will be selected to confer Confirmation to eligible young people.
It’s important to note that although public Masses will resume, those who are considered the most “vulnerable and at-risk” in contracting the Coronavirus are encouraged to remain home and continue to participate via live-streamed services.
“There are obvious potential risks to anyone attending Mass these days given the pandemic,” the bishop wrote. “Those who are feeling sick or have any symptoms of illness must remain home. Pastors are encouraged to continue providing Masses online for those unable to attend. The dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass will remain in effect until further notice.”
Under the guidelines, churches will be limited to a maximum of 40 percent of normal capacity and the six-foot social distancing rule will remain in force.
Pastors have been encouraged to tape off pews to allow for social distancing; to use a single entrance so that congregants can be counted while arriving (keeping in mind the needs for handicap accessibility); to empty all Holy Water fonts; to provide collection baskets at the entrance in lieu of an offertory; and to remove all hymnals, pew cards, Missalettes and other shared literature.
In order to be prepared, pastors have also been asked to set up a means to pre-register those who plan to attend a service — either online, via email or by telephone. This will ensure that each Mass celebration doesn’t exceed the 40 percent cap.
For the distribution of Holy Communion, several recommendations have been made to ensure safety protocols while maintaining reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.
All priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are urged to use hand sanitizer before and after distribution. They are also required to wear masks while distributing the Blessed Sacrament. Priests are to be provided face shields from the diocese for this purpose.
Social distancing should be maintained during the Communion procession — single file lines are encouraged, keeping six-feet between each person. Holy Communion can be distributed either at the normal time during the Liturgy, or after the final blessing as congregants exit the church, in order to minimize close contact.
Recipients must remove masks and gloves when coming forward to receive the Eucharist and the Host must be consumed immediately. No distribution of the Precious Blood will be allowed, and during this period of health concern, in order to avoid risk of contamination, Communion should only be given in the hand and not on the tongue.
Among some of the other safety precautions that are being recommended:
— A hospitality volunteer may be appointed to ensure social distancing. Except for members of the same household, faithful must always remain at least six feet apart during the Mass.
— Door monitors may also be needed to make sure the maximum number allowed is not exceeded. This maximum number includes the priest, ministers, livestream videographers and anyone else in the space during Mass.
— The use of face masks/coverings is recommended by the CDC and mandated by the governor of the Commonwealth, unless unable because of a medical condition or under the age of two. Priests and Liturgical ministers are not required to wear masks during the celebration of Mass, but they are required to wear them (or a shield) during the distribution of Holy Communion.
— Masses should be of shorter duration. Time spent in proximity increases the risk of transmission. For this reason, pastors and priest celebrants are asked to employ legitimate options as given in the Roman Missal to keep Masses to a shorter duration.
— Fully respectful of the very important role that music plays in our Liturgies, and also respectful of the public health concerns, the congregation should be instructed not to sing, either by announcement or by signs. There can be a cantor and an instrumentalist, who would provide music during the Mass. Choirs should not be used during these days.
— Cantors need not wear a mask while singing, maintaining a safe distance from others.
— Altar servers are strongly discouraged.
— There is to be no Sign of Peace at this time. This can be replaced by a moment of quiet prayer or by wishing peace to each without physical contact.
— Outdoor Masses may be permitted if proper social distancing and state guidelines are followed.
— Multiple exits should be used at the end of Mass to expedite departure and minimize chances of people encountering one another. In all cases, social distancing must be observed and the faithful are encouraged not to congregate before or after Masses.
— The celebrant must maintain social distance if greeting people after Mass.
In addition to managing all these safety protocols for Mass celebrations, pastors will further be required to organize staff and volunteers to clean the pews and other common-use areas, including restrooms, immediately after Mass. Most surfaces and objects will just need normal routine cleaning. But frequently-touched surfaces and objects (i.e. switches and doorknobs) will need to be cleaned and then disinfected to further reduce the risk of germs.
Bishop da Cunha has advised the five deans in the diocese to have regular conversations with pastors as to how things are going during this first phase of reopening and report back to him or the vicar general as needed.
“I pray that all of us in this diocesan family, clergy and laity will remain united in prayer as we move forward toward the reopening of our churches,” Bishop da Cunha said. “Our Easter season culminates with Pentecost as we commemorate the occasion of God’s sending the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples after His Resurrection. This year, it will offer us added joy as we resume public celebrations of Masses in our churches across the Fall River Diocese.”