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BALTIMORE (CNS) -- The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced it will start Phase 1 of its reopening plan May 15 at 5 p.m. local time, allowing churches to be open for private prayer and adoration. Parishes may offer the sacrament of reconciliation and funeral and wedding Masses may be held with a limit of 10 attendees.
The start of Phase 2 also was announced for the weekend of May 30-31, when public Masses can begin at the pastor's discretion and where it is permissible to do so based on conditions in the local jurisdiction.
Some suburban and rural areas of the state are ready to move forward with plans to reopen, while Baltimore City has extended its stay-at-home orders due to a continued high number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced May 13 loosening of restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic in Maryland, but still emphasized "Safer at Home." Effective May 15 at 5 p.m., he said, 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.
In an interview May 13 before the governor's announcement, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said, "I think the most important thing is that we truly do want to make the sacraments and the Mass as accessible as possible. We've missed greatly being together.
"All of us have missed it. Priests have missed it. I've missed it. And certainly, God's people have missed it," the archbishop said, adding that reopening churches and restarting public Masses must be done safely and looking toward the common good.
He also acknowledged that many people in the worshipping community -- including some priests who are older or have underlying conditions -- are vulnerable.
"We want to do this in a way that is thoughtful and responsible, but as responsive as possible to the great pastoral desire for the Mass and sacraments," he said.
In the archdiocese, Masses beginning the weekend of the feast of Pentecost May 31 will be allowed with one-third of the church's capacity if held indoors. Outdoor masses have no limit on numbers in attendance but must adhere to physical distancing requirements. No in-car Masses will be permitted and parishioners must bring chairs or stand for outdoor Masses.
Worship guidelines for Phase I issued by the archdiocese May 12 will remain in effect. Pastors will need to develop a process for distribution of Communion based on those guidelines, which include protocols for hand sanitizing by the priest or other Communion ministers, who will wear a facial covering. The faithful will be required to wear a facial covering when coming forward to receive the Eucharist, lowering it just prior to the reception of the Eucharist, according to the guidelines.
Communicants will be strongly recommended to receive Communion in the hand. The Precious Blood will not be distributed.
The archdiocese also has released a video in English and Spanish regarding "What to Expect When You Return to Mass" along with the Phase I guidelines.
A maxim in moral theology is to "take the safer course," Archbishop Lori told the Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan media outlet.
"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.
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Gunty is associate publisher/editor of Catholic Review Media, the media arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.