By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer,
and Katherine Long | Editor
More than 10 weeks after Bishop Douglas J. Lucia suspended public Masses in the Syracuse Diocese, pastors and parish staffs are working out details on how, and if, they can celebrate in-person Masses — with significant restrictions — this weekend, the Solemnity of Pentecost.
Celebration of public Masses will be permitted in churches with no more than 10 people, or in church parking lots at 50% capacity, with attendees remaining in their vehicles, Bishop Lucia announced May 22. Pastors must complete and submit to the bishop’s office a detailed, 16-point planning form before they resume public Masses.
A 10-page document, “Instructions for the Celebration of the Sacraments When Public Gatherings Resume,” spells out the diocese’s rules. They address sanitizing, social distancing, and crowd size.
Dispensation from the obligation to attend weekly Mass continues.
Public Masses in the seven-county diocese have been suspended since March 16, all 22 diocesan Catholic schools were closed by March 18, and New York has been under stay-at-home orders since March 22 as the coronavirus pandemic spread. Most regions of the state, including Central New York and the Southern Tier, were allowed May 18 to begin resuming some business operations, with restrictions. The regions could move by May 30 to Phase 2, which allows reopening professional services and retail.
“Thank you for your patience and understanding as we have traveled and continue to travel in uncharted waters!” Bishop Lucia wrote in a May 22 letter to the faithful. [Find the letter in full on the cover of this issue.]
New rules for celebrating Mass
The faithful will experience Mass and other worship services very differently as churches follow procedures intended to prevent spreading the novel coronavirus. “Both the Diocese of Syracuse and each parish have a responsibility to provide a safe worship space for the faithful by adhering to all Federal, State and local governmental and public health guidance aimed at limiting the spread of the virus,” the planning form notes.
Protocols stipulate general principles all parishes must follow: the time spent in gatherings is to be kept to a minimum; the number of individuals allowed to gather must be in compliance with current governmental restrictions; social distancing of six feet of separation is to be observed; churches are to be properly disinfected and ventilated before and after each individual use; and all non-sacramental gatherings, particularly congregating before or after Mass either in the church or in the parking lot, are prohibited.
The protocols provide sacrament-by-sacrament breakdowns that include “some mandates, some recommendations, and some reminders,” said Father Christopher Seibt, director of the Office of Liturgy and a member of the diocesan task force.
Among the specific protocols required for the celebration of Mass and the distribution of the Holy Eucharist are the following:
• In each parish, a system of registering to attend Mass is to be devised to ensure individuals are not turned away at the door, to avoid any traffic issues, and as a safety measure to assist in reporting any possible exposure to COVID-19.
• For Masses celebrated in parking lots, parishes must mark traffic routes and parking spots, create a worthy area for celebrating Mass, and provide a sound amplification system. Communicants will be directed to exit their vehicles one vehicle at a time to receive Holy Communion.
• For Masses celebrated inside churches, one entrance will be open to registered attendees. Face masks must be worn by attendees over age 2. Holy water fonts will be empty and hymnals removed. Pews will be marked for seating; households may sit together. Choirs are suspended but music may be provided by a musician and cantor. To maintain social distancing between both liturgical ministers and the assembly, the route for the entrance procession and the arrangement of the sanctuary may be altered. Collection baskets will be centrally located. Parishioners will not bring the gifts forward. The sign of peace is omitted, as are the non-liturgical practices of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer and of blessing those who come forward for the reception of Holy Communion, but do not receive.
• During small indoor Masses, only the priest and deacon are to distribute Holy Communion; during large gatherings, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion may assist.
• Masks must be worn by all — clergy, ministers, and the faithful — during the distribution of Holy Communion.
• To receive Communion, the faithful will sanitize their hands and come forward at the direction of the usher. Communicants are strongly recommended to receive Holy Communion in the hand. After receiving the Eucharist, they step aside six feet to lift their mask with one hand and consume the Host with the other. Those receiving on the tongue should wait until the end of the line to come forward and remove their mask only at the moment of reception. The Precious Blood will not be distributed.
Pastoral care continues
Not every parish will be able to provide the same access to the sacraments, the diocesan instructions note. Some parishes may not be able to celebrate Mass in parking lots; others may not be able to regulate attendance or properly disinfect spaces. Using the protocols, “each parish must determine what is possible at this time,” the document says. “Only those parishes that can adhere to and enforce these protocols may expand access to the sacraments after submitting the Requirements for the Resumption of Public Worship: Parish Pandemic Form to the Office of the Bishop.”
Further, “All parishes should continue to provide pastoral care in generous, yet responsible ways (e.g., phone calls, letters, streamed liturgies, virtual catechesis, etc.),” it says. “All parishes should also have a system in place for regular reviews of protocols. Following these instructions will help reduce the possibility of spread of disease; however, the risk cannot be reduced to zero.”
Bishop Lucia’s daily 12:10 p.m. Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse will continue to livestream at youtube.com/syrdio.
Faith communities plan
Pastors are taking different approaches, depending on the configuration of their churches and their health and that of their flock.
Msgr. Neal Quartier, rector of the Cathedral, urged patience as he and his staff discuss plans. “To open up the church for public Masses involves a tremendous amount of preparation on our part to keep you safe and healthy,” he said in a video message. “We’ll do our very best, but I’m asking for your patience and your understanding as we make these important decisions for opening up safely for all of you.”
St. Rose of Lima Church in North Syracuse plans to celebrate Masses in its parking lot this weekend. Pastor Father Chris Celentano has built a raised platform for the altar and recently reconfigured the parking spots to improve sight lines and traffic flow. Detailed plans for the celebrations were being developed on Sunday and were expected to be communicated to St. Rose parishioners by midweek. “We’re excited, I’m excited, that you’ll be able to come and to join us,” Father Celentano said during his livestreamed Mass May 24.
Clergy are awaiting word on whether state guidelines will allow 25% capacity in houses of worship. New York’s four-phase reopening plan lists houses of worship in Phase 4, likely to begin in late June. That phase, which includes arts, entertainment, and recreation; and education, was identified for organizations that draw large crowds. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week said religious gatherings of no more than 10 people — following strict social distancing guidelines — and drive-in and parking lot religious services would be allowed statewide beginning May 21.
But in recent days some local and state officials have begun considering up to 25% capacity in houses of worship in regions where COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are declining.
Cathedral’s plans for Pentecost services will change if the state approves increased capacity, Msgr. Quartier said.
“If the number stays at 10, we will do some parking lot Masses,” Father John Manno, pastor of Holy Family in Fairmount said on Facebook. “If the number goes up then our Masses will be in church with a revised Mass schedule.”
One-quarter of Holy Family’s seating capacity would allow about 200 people. “We don’t know if this will happen, but I will communicate this to you as the week goes on,” he said.
Until the permitted crowd size increases, St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton and St. Joan of Arc in Morrisville will continue to livestream Masses only, said Father Jason Hage. The layouts of the church parking lots do not accommodate outdoor services, he explained at the end of Sunday Mass, livestreamed on Facebook.
“If it’s just for 10, I don’t think it really makes sense to try to do a registration system and signups because I would hate to say that only the lucky few will be able to go to Mass for the next couple weeks,” Father Hage said.
Holy Cross Church in DeWitt will send parishioners a letter with details, according to its website. St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse will not yet resume public Masses but will continue to livestream Sunday Mass.
“Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the various restrictions and precautions that must be in place in order to ensure the health and safety of all, these instructions are intended for expanding access to the sacraments within the current medical and governmental regulations and recommendations,” the Instructions say. “They are subject to change as access to the sacraments may either expand or retract depending on the spread of contagion. Therefore, patience and flexibility on the part of all is required.”
Safety guides reopening
As the diocesan task force was finalizing its procedures last Friday, President Donald Trump called on governors to allow churches to reopen that weekend, intensifying the national debate over when houses of worship should reopen.
After Trump’s May 22 comments, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said the city will abide by Cuomo’s order limiting religious gatherings to no more than 10 people at a time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention May 22 released new guidance for faith groups to reopen. The document offers “non-binding public health guidance for consideration only.” It also notes “gatherings present a risk for increasing spread of COVID-19.”
Trump’s comments raised questions about his authority over churches and whether he can override state government orders. Some cited the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, arguing that right belongs to states, not the federal government. Others have raised questions about religious liberty in regard to government orders to close or reopen religious spaces.
Bishop Lucia has repeatedly said his decisions prioritize safety. “We in the Diocese of Syracuse are anxious to return to public worship, celebrating Mass and the other sacraments,” he said May 22. “However, we will do so in a way that will keep people safe and healthy. We are awaiting further clarifications of what today’s announcement means; however, we were already planning to release protocols for public worship to begin on Pentecost, next weekend.”
Some U.S. Catholic dioceses have resumed public Masses in recent weeks. In several cases, churches closed again after church members or clergy tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Resuming public Masses on Pentecost, after more than 10 weeks of stay-at-home orders, adds even greater meaning to the feast day. In a May 22 video message, Bishop Lucia urged the faithful to pray to the Holy Spirit that this Pentecost will be “a new Pentecost for all of us” — one that will “light the flame of faith in our diocese.”
Despite the limitations and rules, “It’s worth it as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It’s worth it so we can come together for Mass.”
What to expect when Masses resume
How will parishes set up equitable and fair registration for limited Mass attendance?
Parishes will figure out the best system that will work for them. They should, however, use multiple methods (e.g., online, phone) so the majority can access the system.
Will registration be limited to registered parishioners?
Parishes should try to accommodate their parishioners first — not to be exclusionary, but to tend to the flock entrusted to them.
What happens if a parish can’t meet the requirements to resume public Masses?
Pastors must complete and submit a detailed, 16-point form before they resume public Masses. If a parish cannot do it, it simply cannot do it. The parish should continue to reach out to parishioners as it has: streaming, mailings, messages, etc.
The average age of the diocese’s 90 active priests is 68, putting many at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. What happens if a priest does not feel he is up to undertaking this?
No priest should put himself at risk. However, he may be assisted by his staff, volunteers, etc.
How can I learn more about reopening details?
The following documents are available at thecatholicsun.com and syrdio.org:
• Bishop Lucia’s Letter to the People
• Instructions for the Celebration of the Sacraments When Public Gatherings Resume
• Summary of the Instructions
• Requirements for Resumption of Public Worship Parish Pandemic Form
• Monitoring Plan
Stay connected to your parish, the Catholic Sun, and the diocese for updates. Visit thecatholicsun.com and facebook.com/SyrCatholicSun, and syrdio.org and facebook.com/DioceseOfSyracuse for the latest information.