Three further Catholic dioceses have announced they will resume public celebration of Mass, subject to the requirements of public health orders and social distancing.
The Montana dioceses of Great Falls-Billings and Helena both announced the re-openings on Thursday, April 23, one day after the bishop of Lubbock, Texas told his priests to prepare to restore access to Communion for Catholics in the diocese.
The public celebration of Mass has been prohibited in dioceses across the United States for over a month as part of efforts to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The decisions come one week after Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, became the first bishop in the United States to lift the ban on public celebration of Mass in his diocese.
In a short video posted on the diocesan website Thursday, Bishop Austin Vetter of Helena noted that the governor of Montana had initiated “phase one” of a readjustment of closure orders. “That does allow us to begin gathering for Mass,” the bishop said.
Governor Steve Bullock’s phased reopening plan permits limited reopening for some retail venues and public gathering places, including bars and casinos.
“Beginning on Sunday, those parishes that are able to comply with all that is necessary in phase one for a gathering are able to celebrate Mass,” said Vetter.
The bishop added that it was not possible to guarantee that every church in the diocese would be able to open this weekend, owing to the limitations of space in some places and of sourcing necessary cleaning materials to comply with state regulation in others.
“It is so important that you understand that not all parishes will be able to [reopen immediately]. Not because of lack of effort or desire,” he said. “I ask all of you good people of God to be patient with us. To be patient with us and with each other as we start phase one, to see how this goes.”
Noting that on some occasions more Catholics would want to attend Mass than it will be possible to accommodate in compliance with social distancing, Vetter said “It’s so important that you realize that the Sunday obligation is still suspended for you. It is so important, if you are vulnerable, to stay at home – if you are elderly, if you are [just] not comfortable yet, don’t come. Come only when you are ready.”
Vetter also said that parents with small children who would find it harder to observe social distancing may find it easier to remain home, or attend Mass as they are able individually, “at least until we can get a rhythm going and become more comfortable with how this is going to work.”
Mass from the Helena cathedral will continue to be streamed live, he said, but would now be moved to the main altar since there will be a congregation.
In a letter posted on the Billings-Great Falls diocesan Facebook page Thursday evening, Bishop Michael Warfel announced that he was lifting the ban on the public celebration of all the sacraments.
“Public celebrations of the Sacraments are permitted as long as adequate spacing and social distancing are managed and maintained,” he wrote.
In addition to Mass, the new directive also covers confirmations and first Communions, which are to be scheduled at the parish pastor’s determination, and baptisms, which are to be limited to immediate family and godparents.
“Weddings may be celebrated with the limitations stated above,” the letter said, and made similar provision for funerals.
Priests were instructed to consult with county health departments about precautions when administering the sacrament of anointing of the sick to patients with COVID-19.
“All priests are encouraged to provide reasonable and prudent measures to ensure everyone’s safety, including their own,” Warfel said. “Everyone is encouraged to continue to practice good hygiene. People who feel sick should remain at home, as should vulnerable and at risk-populations.”
In a video posted on YouTube on April 22, Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock said that, following new guidelines from the state Attorney General, it was now possible for churches to provide for the distribution of Communion through drive-up services.
The video was accompanied by a letter on the diocesan website.
"Therefore," Coerver said, "I am asking that our parishes make preparations, as soon as possible, that Communion be made available to people at the conclusion of live stream Masses or at the conclusion of Masses which might be offered outdoors."
In his own provisions, issued last week, Baldacchino emphasized his own preference for outdoor Masses which could accommodate larger numbers of the faithful in a safe way – either in spaced, parked cars, or elsewhere on parish property.
“We have to be creative, we have to respond to the times and the needs of the people,” Baldacchino told CNA. “I was very inspired by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. He spoke about how drastic measures are not always good. He opened the churches of Rome – in a safe way, of course – and warned us that we must remain very close to the Lord’s flock at this time. We cannot wall ourselves off.”
"Of course," Coerver said, parishes could only hold outdoor Masses "observing social distancing guidelines."
"The best prevention of the spread of the virus continues to be staying at home," he cautioned. "Those over 60 years of age, or those with pre-existing medical conditions which make them more vulnerable to the effects of the virus should not attend church services at this time."
The bishop reiterated that the suspension of the Sunday obligation remained in effect.
All attendees at an outdoor Mass in Lubbock must wear masks, the bishop emphasized, and said he would be providing the clergy of the diocese with "very specific instructions" on the distribution of Communion.
"We need to continue being extremely cautious about the spread of the virus," Coerver said. "I have consistently followed the directives of the civil authorities and will continue to do so, even if I might personally disagree with some of the aspects of reopening which they might be implementing."
When he became the first bishop to reinstitute the public celebration of Mass during the coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Baldacchino noted that many civil jurisdictions, including the state of New Mexico, had prioritized liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries as “essential services” ahead of churches.
“I hope that this might be a glimmer of Easter hope for all of us,” Coerver said.