A sign reminding parishioners of social distancing stands outside of Blessed Sacrament Church in Walpole in May 2020. With COVID-19 trends improving, the archdiocese has begun to adjust some coronavirus protocols for parishes. Pilot file photo/Gregory L. Tracy
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BRAINTREE -- With the steady rollout of vaccines and declining numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations, the archdiocese is beginning to loosen protocols for Mass and other parish activities.
In an announcement released March 17, the archdiocese said parishes may now employ a "simplified" form of social distancing: they can use every other pew and have people of different households sit apart with double arm's length between them.
Which, they said, "in many cases this will add considerable capacity to the church seating."
During the Mass, parishes can have a vaccinated adult serve at the altar. According to the new protocols, the altar server should be masked, and any priests or deacons present should wear masks when not speaking. The altar server should not hold the missal for the priest, and should keep "the greatest distance possible" when the priest is unmasked and speaking.
Congregational singing has not been permitted since Masses resumed. However, Mass parts other than the responsorial psalm may now be sung by the congregation while continuing to wear their masks. The guidelines cited the example of the congregation singing of acclamations during Holy Week liturgies, such as "Light of Christ" at the Easter Vigil.
"This is a first small step in a return to congregational singing," the archdiocese said, promising that "more will follow at a later date."
Parishes can also resume "a normal frequency" of Communion calls, if the minister is fully vaccinated. The guidelines state that calls should be brief, "just long enough to bring the Sacrament" but that extraordinary ministers of Communion can continue to bring the Blessed Sacrament to their families regardless of their own vaccination status.
In issuing the new protocols, the archdiocese urged parishes to exercise "common sense."
"Please do not treat these relaxations of the protocols as more than they are. This is a step toward a restoration of what will eventually be allowed, but it is only a step," the archdiocese said.
The announcement also encouraged parishes to continue live-streaming activities and reiterated the requirement of wearing masks over the mouth and nose as well as maintaining sufficient social distancing and ventilation measures.
Earlier this month, the Archdiocesan COVID Response Team sent a message to parishes about changes that might be possible in the summer months.
"We know that as the numbers continue to trend in the right direction here in the State of Massachusetts, there is an increasing desire to open things up more. We all feel that desire, and we are watching both the numbers and the state guidelines carefully," the March 1 message said.
The team encouraged parishes to "feel free to start planning things for the summer months, but those plans should be made with the maximum flexibility possible," advising against making plans that cannot be changed or making deposits for travel.
"Any activities that are planned should contain the caveat that they may have to be cancelled depending on the trend in the numbers and the state guidelines," the COVID Team said.
They also committed to communicating every two weeks or so about anticipated changes and remaining restrictions.
They said that parish mission trips might be allowed during the summer, but there is "no certainty on that point." Any plans made should be "very, very flexible, as we yet have no date on which those events would be allowed again."
Questions about coronavirus pandemic restrictions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.