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Catholic dioceses cope with new limits as virus cases spike in U.S., Canada


  • ...Health guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and a hand-sanitizer dispenser are seen near an entrance to Immaculate Conception Church in Jamaica Estates, N.Y., Nov. 22, 2020. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
  • ...Parishioner Lucy Alibutod sanitizes pews following Mass Nov. 22, 2020, at Immaculate Conception Parish in Jamaica Estates, N.Y. The Passionist-run parish is located in the Diocese of Brooklyn. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As the number of COVID-19 cases rises dramatically in the U.S., Canada and around the world, government officials almost universally have returned to stricter lockdowns, with U.S. officials even urging families to reconsider how many people to host on Thanksgiving dinner or perhaps cancel the holiday meal altogether.

Bishops have extended the dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation for Catholics until sometime next year, and dioceses continue to strictly follow health protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19.

As of midday Nov. 23, the U.S. had 12,246,909 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 256,782 deaths; 41 states are seeing a spike in cases. In Canada, there were 330,503 confirmed cases and 11,455 deaths. The U.S. has tested nearly 181 million people for COVID-19, and Canada has tested over 10.8 million people.

As COVID-19 cases have spiked in recent weeks, governments have doubled down on mandates to wear masks, social distance, and extensively clean and sanitize facilities.

They've cracked down on how many people can patronize a restaurant or bar or a local gym at any given time and have severely limited the size of congregations for indoor or outdoor worship or in many cases forced houses of worship to close.

In Oregon, Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample publicly expressed "great disappointment and frustration" over Gov. Kate Brown's recent statewide restrictions that limit faith gatherings to 25 people. In a Nov. 18 statement, the archbishop urged the governor to adopt "data-driven" protocols as Christmas approaches.

"It is unfortunate that a person's ability to worship does not seem to be considered an essential activity," said the archbishop. "I can assure you that the Catholic faithful under my pastoral care consider Sunday worship vital, especially when facing the challenges of the pandemic."

Archbishop Sample said he understood the need to address the recent spike in COVID-19 cases but that the virus is not spreading in churches.

In British Columbia, the government has closed churches to public worship, just as local parishes reported a nearly 80% drop in weekly Mass attendance and a significant strain on their finances.

On Nov. 19, provincial health officer Bonnie Henry called for the suspension of all in-person religious gatherings and worship services effective immediately until Dec. 7.

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller said the archdiocese remains committed to doing its part to "help stem the tide of the pandemic" by following the orders.

"I am saddened that the celebration of Mass with a congregation, a comfort and strength to so many, has to be suspended at this time," he said in statement after Henry's announcement. "Most of our parishes are already livestreaming Mass, and I encourage the faithful to participate in this way."

He added churches will remain open for private prayer and individual confession. Funerals, weddings, and baptisms can be celebrated too, according to government orders, as long as they include no more than 10 participants -- including the officiant -- and do not involve a reception.

In Detroit, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron announced Nov. 13 that the faithful in the archdiocese will continue to be dispensed from their Sunday Mass obligation until at least Ash Wednesday, which is Feb. 17.

The dispensation -- which, like in many dioceses, has been in place since the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March -- was set to expire Nov. 22, when Catholics would have been expected to return to the pews.

"Unfortunately, local and state health officials report that we not only continue to experience an increase in cases in our region and elsewhere, but that the rate of increase is rising dramatically and dangerously," Archbishop Vigneron said.

"I have been in communication with leaders in our Catholic hospitals," he said, "and they are very concerned about the immediate future and the challenges they face caring for all those in need, not just those experiencing serious complications from COVID-19."

Masses will continue to be offered on Sundays and weekdays, and parishes will remain open. Regardless of whether families choose to attend Mass, the archbishop noted, "all baptized Catholics are reminded of the grave necessity they have to keep holy the Lord's Day. This a divine law that neither I nor anyone else can ever dispense."

It is "vitally important for every member of the Catholic Church to observe the Sabbath by prioritizing prayer, time for God and for family, and works of charity," Archbishop Vigneron said.

He noted the livestreamed Masses most churches are providing "have been a way to help Catholics nourish their souls when they cannot be present for Mass,” he said. Archbishop Vigneron also said those who engage in "nonessential" activities such as shopping, dining out or social events should return to Sunday Mass.

The Archdiocese of Toronto has temporarily canceled public Masses in the city of Toronto and the suburban Peel Region in the wake of new restrictions announced Nov. 20 by the Ontario government to combat the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in those areas.

Under the new provincial rules, churches in the "lockdown" zone must restrict attendance inside to 10 people. That number includes priests and support staff, which led to the directive from the archdiocese to cancel the Masses.

"I am deeply disappointed that, in some regions of the archdiocese, we must restrict participation in the sacraments," Cardinal Thomas C. Collins of Toronto said in a statement.

"This will inflict a great spiritual pain upon those who safely and with great dedication have been drawing spiritual strength to sustain them, and to help them to serve those suffering in this pandemic," he said. "As we have demonstrated our ability to safely worship together, I trust that we will soon be able fully to resume public worship."

The measures are effective as of Nov. 23, which means services were not impacted for Nov. 22 Sunday Masses. The rules stay in place for 28 days, though they can be reviewed before then.

Cardinal Collins encouraged pastors to keep churches open whenever possible for private prayer and for the sacrament of reconciliation. Weddings, funerals and baptisms will be restricted to 10 persons.

The cardinal also urged parishioners to view livestreamed and televised Masses. He will continue to celebrate a livestreamed Mass each morning at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica at 7:30 a.m.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will continue the celebration of public Masses in the city while still complying with the stricter guidelines on gatherings issued by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, which went into effect at 5 p.m. Nov. 20.

The city is banning most indoor gatherings through the rest of the year. However, churches and other religious facilities are permitted to have people indoors, but density must be capped at 5 people per 1,000 square feet or 5% of maximum occupancy. Retail is allowed, and salons and hotels can remain open with limitations.

Museums, libraries and gyms are closed, and youth and community sports are banned. In addition, indoor dining is prohibited and outdoor dining is now limited to four people of the same household.

In Kansas, since the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been more than 134,500 cases of COVID-19, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s website.

"Just as Jesus desires to be one with us sacramentally, I know many parishioners desire to be united with Christ sacramentally, too," said Bishop Jerry L. Vincke of Salina, Kansas.

"Our goal is to make all the sacraments as available as possible, while still being prudent. Since our diocese is so large territorially, I have asked my priests to work with the local county health commissions and to adhere to local guidelines for their community."

The Salina Diocese comprises 31 counties, with more than 26,000 square miles, in the northwest quadrant of the state.

In the statewide Diocese of Portland, Maine, in accordance with Gov. Janet Mills' guidelines, Catholic churches will temporarily allow a maximum of 50 persons in attendance for indoor daily and Sunday Masses. The dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass continues to be in place, and the many livestreamed Masses being offered at churches around Maine.

On Nov. 10, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Maine has the highest virus reproduction rate in the nation.

"At this time, the spike in COVID-19 cases has forced this temporary decrease of in-person attendance at Masses," said Bishop Robert Deeley. "I understand the great frustration felt by the many Catholics who have reached out to me.

"For you and me, the place in which we find Jesus is at Mass in the Eucharist. We believe that it is truly Jesus, assuring all that God is with us. Eucharist gives us the grace to live our lives as followers of Jesus."

Strict adherence to state and diocesan protocols have led to the successful operation of the 141 Catholic churches in Maine during the pandemic. The protocols have included mandatory masks for Mass attendees; pew seating arrangements to separate individuals/families; and proper sanitization of pews and all touched surfaces after each Mass.

No cases of COVID-19 have stemmed from a Mass at a Catholic church in Maine since the start of the pandemic, and the diocese called on Mills to be "a better partner" and include the Catholic Church in discussions about COVID-19 protocols.

In Alabama, Bishop Steven J. Raica, who has headed the Birmingham Diocese since his installation June 23, has extended dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation.

"There will arrive a day when the special dispensation will not be extended further," he said. "We each have the opportunity during this present extension to assess the risks we are already taking and, if we have not yet returned to Mass -- even with precautions -- (to) ask ourselves, before God, if our reasons for missing are truly legitimate.

"We hoped that COVID-19 would have been a footnote in history by now; alas, it is still with us," Bishop Raica added. "Therefore, as faithful Catholics, drawing upon the riches of our great tradition, let us find the way forward with and through COVID-19, rather than living in fear of it -- or even worse, rather than putting life on hold."

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Contributing to this story were Katie Scott in Portland, Oregon, Agnieszka Ruck in Vancouver, Michael Stechschulte in Detroit, the Catholic Register staff in Toronto and Karen Bonar in Salina.

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