“Today, I announce that due to the Coronavirus and its relentless spread and effect on the most vulnerable of our society, all public gatherings for Mass, prayer, Faith Formation, and certain parish activities (see list) are suspended effective immediately. It is my hope and prayer that I will be able to lift this suspension in time for Holy Week and Easter, but that will have to be a decision for a later date. Correspondingly, during this time period the faithful are dispensed from their Sunday obligation to participate in Holy Mass.
This decision is not an easy one. For 57 years of my own life, Sunday Mass and Daily Mass during Lent have been a staple for me. Never did I think or ever imagine I would have to ask people not to gather for the Holy Eucharist. Nonetheless, I recognize my own obligation to ensure the health of the faithful, including our clergy, both spiritually and physically. By implementing effective social distancing measures, the Diocese of Syracuse supports the common good of all citizens and prioritizes the dignity of every human life, especially those most susceptible to the virus at this time.”
By Katherine Long | Editor and Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer
Responding to “this time of national and worldwide emergency” of “the coronavirus and its relentless spread and effect on the most vulnerable of our society,” Bishop Douglas J. Lucia Monday suspended all public Masses in the diocese. He also suspended all public gatherings for prayer, Faith Formation, and certain parish activities.
Bishop Lucia made the announcement in a letter to the faithful [read the letter in full on page 3 of this issue] and later recorded a video message as well. This is the first time in recent memory that the diocese has suspended Mass.
The Syracuse Diocese is among more than half of 197 U.S. dioceses, including all of New York’s eight dioceses, that had by midday Tuesday suspended public Masses in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many other faith communities across Central New York are canceling services as well.
Bishop Lucia said it was his “hope and prayer” to lift the suspension in time for Holy Week and Easter, “but that will have to be a decision for a later date.”
While public Masses are suspended, priests are encouraged to celebrate Mass in private. Bishop Lucia will livestream his private celebration of daily Mass at 12 p.m. each day on the diocesan YouTube channel, youtube.com/syrdio; plans are being developed to livestream the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, Eucharistic Adoration, and a Lenten retreat.
During this period, churches may stay open for private prayer at pastors’ discretion. Weddings, funerals, and baptisms may proceed as scheduled, but “attendance should be limited to immediate family” and social distancing maintained, the bishop directed. The Sacrament of Penance (Confession) should continue, with appropriate modifications. Parish offices may remain open with essential staff at the pastor’s discretion, with regular thorough cleanings and recommended social distancing.
Bishop Lucia noted that canceling public Masses will likely affect parish finances and operations. Parishioners may mail their offerings or contribute through online giving where available. Bishop Lucia has also postponed the start of this year’s HOPE Appeal campaign; Commitment Weekend in parishes was scheduled for May 2 and 3.
The suspension of Masses followed days of mounting concern over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Government, business, and faith leaders announced closures, cancellations, and plans to move events online.
Catholic Charities leaders are updating policies regularly as conditions change. Leaders say they plan to provide services “in a spirit of God’s love and compassion” while following recommended protocols to prevent spreading the virus.
The Franciscan Villa, including the gift shop and Nun Better Chocolate shop, is closed to visitors until April 12, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities said. About 80 Franciscan sisters live at the senior living facility in Salina. The Franciscans have postponed Eat Drink Pray, originally scheduled for April 22.
Two Catholic hospitals in the diocese, St. Joseph’s in Syracuse and St. Elizabeth in Utica, implemented visitor restrictions.
Syracuse’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade Mass, scheduled for March 14 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception ahead of the city’s annual parade, was postponed March 12 along with the parade; Utica’s parade was also postponed. The diocese’s IGNITE Catholic Men’s Conference, scheduled for March 28 at Onondaga Community College’s SRC Arena, was canceled March 12 following local and state decisions limiting the number of people who could attend public events.
Le Moyne College announced March 11 it was extending spring break; on March 13 the college announced it would move courses online March 18 through at least March 27, joining hundreds of U.S. colleges with similar plans. The college announced Tuesday students would not return to campus this semester and all teaching was moving online.
By March 17, all 22 diocesan Catholic schools were closed as all seven counties in the diocese declared states of emergency and public school districts announced closures.
The diocese issued updated liturgical protocols for preventing the spread of the virus March 12. Bishop Lucia on March 13 dispensed Catholics in the diocese from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass citing concern for the “health, safety, and well-being of our faith community.”
Attendance was down at some parishes last weekend as concerns about the coronavirus grew.
Father Kenneth Kirkman, administrator of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Joseph Parishes in Endicott, said the pews were “noticeably emptier,” and that “for the most part, everyone accepted the precautions with good grace.”
“Most people expressed dismay and disbelief about what’s happening,” he said.
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Baldwinsville, there was “great gratitude that church was open and Mass was happening. The people said they needed a break from the chaos,” Father Joseph O’Connor, pastor, reported.
Following Monday’s announcement, parishes were already quickly coming up with alternative ways to minister and connect. Some examples:
• Assumption Church in Syracuse has moved Lenten book club and Stations of the Cross online.
• St. Lucy’s in Syracuse plans to adjust its food pantry procedure to meet safety protocols while serving neighbors.
• Divine Mercy, Central Square, will offer Sunday Mass online. The parish’s Lenten fish fry will move to takeout, and its food pantry will operate outside the building with drive-up service. The parish hall will be open to provide a clean and safe working environment for college students.
• Holy Cross Church in DeWitt is offering a weekly Youth & Families email newsletter with formation and family resources. Special editions of its weekly Bulletin Brief email newsletter will provide content and resources for prayer, growth, and devotion.
• St. Mary’s in Hamilton and St. Joan of Arc in Morrisville will livestream a number of offerings: daily Mass at 8 a.m.; Sunday Mass at 11 a.m.; Faith Formation lessons for children, with Father Jason Hage, at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesdays; and an online Lenten adult Faith Formation series on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Father Hage is also asking the parish family to pray the rosary at 7 p.m. on Thursdays and pray the Stations of the Cross at 3 p.m. on Fridays.
More cancellations and adaptations are ahead as clergy and staff respond to the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus. Changes will affect some 227,000 Catholics across seven counties. In addition to 114 parishes, 11 missions, and seven oratories, the diocese operates six Catholic Charities agencies with dozens of programs; and 22 diocesan schools and 264 offices employing about 3,000 people.
Bishop Lucia acknowledged his decision was not an easy one and that “some of the Catholic faithful will be saddened and even upset by the decision to cancel Masses…. Nonetheless, I recognize my own obligation to ensure the health of the faithful, including our clergy, both spiritually and physically. By implementing effective social distancing measures, the Diocese of Syracuse supports the common good of all citizens and prioritizes the dignity of every human life, especially those most susceptible to the virus at this time.”