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Return of public Masses still uncertain in some of the country’s largest archdioceses
The Church is slowly reopening in major American cities after several weeks of diocesan officials working with public health experts to monitor coronavirus case trends and devise protocols they hope will keep people safe when they return to Mass.
But even as public worship is expected to return by Pentecost for Catholics in Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami and Washington D.C., the lay faithful in other large metropolitan areas such as Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and others are still awaiting word on when their churches will reopen for Sunday Mass.
“That’s the $50,000 question right now,” Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, said as to when public Masses might resume for his city that is nestled along the U.S. Southern border opposite Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
With more than 650,000 residents, El Paso is one of the largest cities in Texas, but it is also a relatively isolated desert community that didn’t see a major spike in coronavirus cases until after the other urban areas in the state had already seen their cases plateau or decline.
“We realize it’s likely to take us awhile to be able to safely reopen our churches, even after other places have already done so,” Bishop Seitz told Our Sunday Visitor.
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s hardest-hit states, where more than 6,000 people have died from COVID-19, public Masses will return for most of the Bay State’s Catholics by the weekend of Pentecost, May 30-31.
“The thing I like about this approach is that it’s a slow roll to reopening. If there’s a problem later on, it will be easy to roll back to a strategy of strong mitigation tactics,” said M.C. Sullivan, the chief health care ethicist for the Archdiocese of Boston.
Sullivan, a co-leader of the archdiocesan pandemic response team that advises Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, told Our Sunday Visitor that she was pleased with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-phased approach to reopening the state, which is contingent on declines in coronavirus diagnoses and hospitalizations. Sullivan said she was “pleasantly surprised” with the governor’s plan that permitted churches to reopen in the first phase.
“The governor’s approach made sense to us,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think he would have moved (to reopen) if he didn’t feel comfortable doing so.”
The different reopening timelines in the nation’s larger archdioceses are the result of several factors that not only include local COVID-19 hospitalization rates and confirmed new cases, but also how aggressive or conservative the individual bishops, governors, mayors, county leaders and public health officials in those states are about how best to reopen society while preventing a resurgence of coronavirus infections.
For example, in Texas, Bishop Seitz has maintained a cautious approach even after Gov. Greg Abbott announced in mid-April his intentions to begin reopening businesses later that month. The governor’s executive order, which declared houses of worship to be “essential” and thus eligible to begin reopening, superseded ordinances that local communities had adopted to control the spread of the coronavirus.
“That concerned us a great deal because of the unique situation we believe we’re facing here in El Paso, with the late arrival of the virus,” said Bishop Seitz, who had just examined a chart that indicated El Paso had a 39 percent increase in coronavirus hospitalizations over a two-day span in mid-May.
“We know we can’t simply stop the spread entirely, but we have to make sure we don’t overwhelm our hospital system,” Bishop Seitz said.
In the Archdiocese of New York, home to 2.8 million Catholics, Cardinal Timothy Dolan told reporters on May 21 that he hopes to see public Masses resume in six weeks. The cardinal presented a five-phase church reopening plan that in itself was a response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own phased approach that, for the time-being, only allows 10 people to attend public worship services.
“The Catholic community in New York City … has been constant in its allegiance to the very wise restrictions of our respected health care professionals and our elected officials these 10 difficult weeks, and we intend to continue to do so,” Cardinal Dolan said.
Across the country, the Archdiocese of Seattle is in reopening talks with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose four-phase plan permits drive-up religious services in Phase 1 but will likely not allow for public Masses until Phase 3. Restaurants, retail stores and hairdressers can open in Phase 2.
“We are simply asking that churches be given the same consideration that other sectors of society are being given as we reemerge from the pandemic,” said Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg of Seattle, who leads the archdiocese’s rapid response team for the coronavirus.
Bishop Mueggenborg told Our Sunday Visitor that the Catholic bishops in Washington State — an early epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States — submitted a plan to reopen their churches, as a courtesy, to Inslee in mid-May.
“We did that so that we could have the conversation with him,” Bishop Mueggenborg said. “If he sees areas where he would like to make suggestions on how we could increase our safety, then we are certainly open to hearing those suggestions. We want to respectfully do this in a collaborative way.”
Also on the West Coast, officials in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have been in frequent talks not just with California Gov. Gavin Newsome, but also the mayor’s office as well as county leaders and health officials at the city, county and state levels.
“We are anticipating that we will begin to implement our strategies for reopening fairly quickly,” Kathleen Domingo, senior director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told Our Sunday Visitor in mid-May.
However, Domingo said an exact timetable for when public Masses will resume in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — home to more than 5 million Catholics — is “difficult to ascertain” given the region’s demographics, population density and data that shows Los Angeles County accounts for nearly 60 percent of California’s 3,630 coronavirus deaths and almost half of the more than 86,000 confirmed infections.
“We’re waiting to see what the future holds for our community and for the progression of the virus,” Domingo said.
In other metropolitan areas, there are signs of hope. Public Masses began returning May 19 in the Archdiocese of Detroit, with procedures to ensure social distancing and sanitizing during and between Masses.
Msgr. Gary Smetanka, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, told Our Sunday Visitor that attendance for his weekday Mass on May 19 was higher than what it normally was before public Masses were suspended more than two months ago.
“Some people teared up. It meant a lot to them being there,” said Msgr. Smetanka, who serves as chairman of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s commission that advised Archbishop Allen Vigneron and helped craft the reopening guidelines and directives.
Father Dennis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, told Our Sunday Visitor that he was hopeful that public Masses, with restrictions, could resume in early June if Pennsylvania moves into the second of its three-phased reopening plan as expected.
“Our people miss Mass. They miss holy Communion. They can’t wait to come back,” said Father Gill, who helped craft the reopening guidelines and liturgical directives for parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has announced a phased reopening approach, but no definitive timeline for when public Masses may return. But even in archdioceses that have started to reopen their churches, Mass attendance is expected to be low given the valid health and safety concerns, especially for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Dispensations from the Sunday Mass obligation will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
“There will be many who will not be comfortable, so I don’t think people will be rushing to the gates anytime soon,” said Sullivan from the Archdiocese of Boston, who added that pastors will continue offering livestreamed Masses so that elderly and vulnerable parishioners can continue to worship safely at home.
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.