U.S. Catholic Bishops recommend limiting participants, following health guidelines in reopening public Masses

Local deacon, a physician, part of working group consultative process

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PROVIDENCE — As prelates across the nation work in tandem with their respective state government and health leaders to define the parameters under which public Masses are beginning to resume after they ceased in March over health concerns due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has provided them with a set of recommendations they may follow to that end.

The recommendations, produced by the Thomistic Institute, an academic institute of the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a serious threat to physical health and that public authorities are right to place limits on gatherings and call for physical distancing. They also recognize that access to divine worship and to the sacraments is of high importance for the spiritual good and overall well-being of the faithful.

The guidelines were issued based on guidance from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health authorities, and also integrate the requirements of the Catholic Church for the valid and licit celebration of the Mass, in accord with Catholic teaching, liturgical law and canon law.

“We have endeavored to formulate them with great care to preserve and respect the reverence due to the Holy Eucharist and the powerful liturgical and sacramental symbolism of the rites of the Mass,” the institute said in crafting the recommendations.

Two local advisers were part of a working group of infectious disease experts, medical professionals, scientists and Catholic theologians tasked with developing the guidance for how Catholic sacraments can be provided in the midst of the current pandemic, in accord with the current standards issued by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Deacon Dr. Timothy Flanigan, who ministers to the Catholic faith communities of St. Theresa and St. Christopher Parishes in Tiverton, and Father Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., Ph.D., S.T.D., an associate professor of biology and professor of theology at Providence College, were part of the working group commissioned by the Thomistic Institute to draft the recommendations.

Dr. Flanigan, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, said that the Thomistic Institute recommendations were created for the USSCB to provide dioceses with a resource that will assist them in reopening public Masses in a way that comports with guidelines from health officials for mitigating risk during the pandemic.

“We can follow our Department of Health and our governor’s guidelines and be able to provide the sacraments in a way that follows their guidance to decrease risk,” Dr. Flanigan said.

“We can open our churches and the church can provide the sacraments. Our churches can be open in a way that respects all of their recommendations.”

He said that practicing social distancing, wearing face masks and washing one’s hands frequently, as well as using hand sanitizers, continue to be very helpful and important in decreasing the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“We can apply those recommendations as a church,” Dr. Flanigan said. “We can come together and pray, even if we can’t sing, because singing carries an increased risk. We can come together to receive Communion. We can reach out to those who are more vulnerable and don’t feel comfortable coming together because of their own health. We need to support them and call them and talk with them, and as a church we need to be present to our parishioners, which is what Jesus did.”

The 23-page document produced by the Thomistic Institute, “Guidelines on Sacraments and Pastoral Care,” focuses on the phased restoration of public Masses, including scenarios to accommodate gatherings of 10 people, 50 people and also larger groups as restrictions ease over time, in accordance with individual state guidelines.

In addition to calling for hand sanitizer to be available near the entrances to a church for those entering and exiting, the recommendations note that Masses should be limited in attendance, depending on the guidance of public health authorities.

To abide by such parameters across the nation, the U.S. Bishops recommend that Masses could be scheduled with greater frequency, in order to accommodate additional small groups, with appropriate social distancing occurring between individuals everywhere on the church property, within the established state limits.

Choir singing during the Mass, especially among chorale members who normally are seated together, is discouraged.

“Vigorous singing, especially in close proximity to others, may increase the risk of viral spread,” the USCCB guidelines state.

The guidelines also call for any priest and minister serving at the Mass, as well as any participant experiencing a respiratory infection of any kind to stay home.

And when celebrating the Mass, priest celebrants and other ministers should remain more than six feet from the congregation and not wear masks or gloves during the celebration of Mass.

“The Mass is imbued with powerful sacramental and liturgical symbolism,” the guidelines say. “Wearing a mask and gloves would be a detrimental counter-sign in this context, and it is not warranted by considerations of hygiene if the priest remains a proper distance from the congregation.”

All participants in the Mass, however, are asked to wear masks.

The document also includes specific recommendations that the distribution of the Eucharist be moved to the end of Mass, with bottles of hand sanitizer being made available at each Communion station.

If Mass participants are wearing masks, they must be removed at this time, as well as gloves if Communion is to be received in the hand.

“Holy Communion may not be distributed with gloves, nor may it be received in the hand if a member of the faithful is wearing gloves,” the guidelines say.

“Hand hygiene is effective against the virus. In these circumstances, gloves are not needed if the priest performs hand hygiene.”

For those wishing to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, this practice will continue.

“We believe that, with the precautions listed here, it is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk,” the guidelines say, noting that the celebrant could consider using hand sanitizer after each communicant who receives on the tongue.

Celebrants are also asked not to distribute the Precious Blood to the faithful, with an exception made for those with severe reactions to gluten, which would preclude them from receiving the Eucharist.