BALTIMORE — The Archdiocese of Baltimore released comprehensive guidelines May 12 for Phase I of reopening parishes, along with a video informing parishioners about “What to Expect When You Return to Mass.”
During Phase I, a date for which has not yet been set, churches would be open for private prayer and adoration, with no more than 10 people at a time in the facility. Confessions — the sacrament of reconciliation — could be held inside churches or in drive-through settings, as was done by some parishes before Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a shelter-in-place order March 30. Whether inside or outside, the sacrament would require maintaining social distance and privacy.
Masses for weddings and funerals also could be celebrated, along with baptisms; the 10-person rule would apply in those cases as well.
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said the archdiocese had reached its decisions to close churches as a responsible way to protect people “out of pastoral love, care and concern for individuals and for the common good.”
Protecting public health and pastoral concerns go hand in hand.
“It’s not a very pastoral thing to put people in harm’s way,” he said. “You know, we really didn’t close the churches because the government said we had to. I think we understood in and of ourselves that we owed it to our people to be responsible about this and to protect them from harm.”
When it is time to move into Phase I, “we want to be able to resume hearing confessions, opening our churches for prayer. We’re looking toward the many who are awaiting baptism, the many who are who have delayed their marriages,” he said.
Hogan announced May 13 that effective May 15 at 5 p.m., churches may begin holding indoor services with a maximum attendance of up to 50% capacity and with everyone following physical distancing and hygiene protocols including wearing masks and sanitizing hands.
However, the archdiocese issued a statement the same day emphasizing that its Phase I plan calls for opening churches for private prayer, weddings, funerals, the sacrament of reconciliation and baptisms.
“A date will soon be announced when Phase I will go into effect,” the statement said. “Regarding today’s announcement by the governor, our Phase I guidance will not be altered until we’ve had a chance to fully understand how the governor’s announcement practically impacts our parishes, which are working to procure necessary supplies and to adapt church facilities so they are safe and in compliance with governmental and public health regulations.”
The statement added that the archdiocese needs to understand if local governments in the nine counties plus Baltimore City that comprise the archdiocese will offer guidance that varies from what the state has issued.
In an interview with the Catholic Review hours before the governor’s announcement, Archbishop Lori said, “I think the reason we would start with, for example, baptisms or weddings or funerals is because you can control the size of those gatherings much more easily.”
“We’re working hard on figuring out how to do it when we go to the next phase,” he told Baltimore’s archdiocesan media outlet. “And we think that we’ll be allowed a certain percentage of capacity in our churches. We’re working hard on the best ways to help pastors locally manage that reality.”
The archbishop said that a maxim in moral theology is to “take the safer course.”
“I think that the safer course means, again, caring concern for our people, protecting their health, knowing that if they can’t be in church and they can’t receive the sacraments, the Lord does not abandon them.”
He said he has been impressed with the creativity of parishes in responding to changes in ministry, including the quantity and quality of livestream Masses. He said there has been a five-fold or more increase in the use of electronic communications tools such as myParish App and Flocknote. Parishes have also gone old-school to use telephone trees to reach out to parishioners.
Calls from the parish acknowledging that people are having a tough time and asking if there is anything the parish can do to help have been well-received.
“Pastors have produced, I think, wonderful encouraging messages,” the archbishop said. “I’ve seen DREs (directors of religious education) and youth ministers really connect with young people in a wonderful way and on a platform that young people are quite comfortable with.”
The church — through Catholic Charities, parishes and other agencies — has been very generous in terms of food donations, feeding more than 10,000 people a day in Baltimore alone, he added.
“The great desire of our pastors and their co-workers in parishes to reach out has been a great thing to see,” he said.
He said that God has given tools to deal with this pandemic that the church never had before, citing the 1918 flu pandemic and how St. Charles Borromeo dealt with the plague in the 1500s.
“Unlike those previous pandemics, we do have tools to keep us connected. They are not substitutes for the in-person reception of the sacraments and celebration of the Mass. Nonetheless, they are something, and they are something good,” the archbishop said.
He hopes the church will continue to use these tools and methods of communicating even after people return to church to help stay connected to parishioners in better times.
He understands that people are getting impatient, and has heard that from many people in his incoming mail.
“The fun of watching Mass on your comfortable sofa and being able to, you know, eat a cookie or something — that novelty is gone now; it went away fast. Now is the point for patient endurance and for working together and staying together and sticking together as a church,” Archbishop Lori said.
“I most pray for the unity of the church through all of this so that when we do open up, we’ll be able to take care of one another. And there will be a day when we open stronger, not weaker,” he said.
The author, Christopher Gunty, is associate publisher/editor of Catholic Review Media, the media arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.