Questions Catholics Ask
My pastor has yet to open our parish for Mass. Why?
Reopening a parish isn’t as simple as it may seem from the perspective of the pews. It’s more than opening the doors and firing up the organ.
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Reopening a parish isn’t as simple as it may seem from the perspective of the pews. It’s more than opening the doors and firing up the organ. Health guidelines were prepared at the request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Liturgical values were established by theologians as well. But the USCCB declined to set a national policy for when and how to reopen, leaving those decisions to regional bishops. Most bishops, in turn, delegated when and how to their trusted pastors. Your question is: why not just create a blueprint for the country or, indeed, for the Catholic world?
Regional distinctions are a huge factor in determining when to reopen. Is the virus controlled in your town and surrounding areas? Mass-goers don’t hail from one place. When a church reopens, Catholics may drive a distance to be there. If numbers are out of control the next town over, opening your church presents a more significant risk.
In addition to infection rates, a pastor must consider his community. One pastor reports how, each month since the pandemic began, parishioners have stomped into the parish office refusing to wear masks or maintain appropriate distancing, demanding that Mass be resumed. The pastor concludes his parishioners aren’t ready to assume responsibility for each other’s safety. Even if most observe the protocols, it would be contrary to the spirit of the Eucharist to forbid or remove others who won’t. Whether he refuses them a seat, or permits them to remain unmasked, it divides and endangers his assembly.
In addition, the very meaning of a sacrament weighs heavily for some pastors. After reflection and prayer, they conclude that the reopening guidelines compromise the sign value of the very sacraments they seek to make accessible. Taking reservations, discouraging the elderly to attend, or turning people away at the door perplexes them. One pastor noted: “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Take this, some of you, and eat of it.’” Another decided: “Until we can all assemble, none of us will assemble.” Community is challenged by sitting apart, forbidding touch, and denying any gathering after the service. The spirit of celebration is dampened without singing. Unity is threatened by the specter of fighting over protocols. It diminishes the sacraments to offer an unworthy expression of them, they conclude.
Only when local conditions, parish attitudes, and sacramental viability come together will a pastor be likely to reopen for worship.
Materials the USCCB recommends for preparing diocesan guidelines:
Road Map to Re-Opening Our Catholic Churches Safely – Ad Hoc Committee of Catholic Doctors (May 2020), 9 pp.
COVID-19: Guidelines on Sacraments and Pastoral Care – Working Group on Infectious Diseases Protocols for Sacraments and Pastoral Care, Version 1.2 (May 7, 2020), 24 pp.