Separation, sanitation, and sanctification: Questions and answers about reopening our parishes

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As we continue to emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown slowly, the clergy of the Archdiocese in union with Bishop Bellisario have been incrementally opening parish facilities to liturgical and other gatherings using the best practices to protect against the risk of infection. Why the glacial pace of reopening? Why not simply throw open the doors and go back to normal as soon as we can? Sadly, as we have seen all too clearly in the past few weeks, this little microscopic monster is still lurking out there, ready to pounce on the unwary. As a parish and as individual Christians, we have a moral obligation to act responsibly to protect our priests and our fellow parishioners, especially the most vulnerable among us.

It’s not always easy to understand why. Below are some answers to common questions about the responsible reopening of parish facilities.

What does the dispensation really mean? I’ve missed Mass and the Eucharist. Will I still go to heaven?

The Archbishop has dispensed the faithful from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. A dispensation is a relaxation of a disciplinary law in order to achieve a greater good. In this case, the preservation of life takes precedence and there is no penalty if you don’t attend Sunday Mass. In fact, individuals who are most at risk should remain at home. Nevertheless, Sunday is still the Lord’s Day. The divine precept to “keep holy the sabbath” remains. It should be a day of prayer and rest from servile labor, even if one is not physically at Mass.

I keep hearing the parishes are doing things in phases. What are the phases? What phase are we in and when will we be fully open?

Currently, we are in Phase III. Phase I and II included the opening of churches for prayer and distribution of Holy Communion after livestreamed, drive-in Masses, or Masses with a congregation. Phase III involves protocols for Baptism, Confirmation, RCIA, home visits, and gatherings other than liturgical celebrations (prayer groups, Knights of Columbus, youth group, etc.).

For each phase, a parish must submit a mitigation/safety plan for each facility it plans to use. State and local governments require these plans. Parish safety plans are submitted to the Archbishop’s office for review, modified, and approved. All elements of a plan, such as signage, traffic patterns, sanitation supplies and training people in their use, must be in place before it can be implemented.

This phased approach allows a parish to see what works, what doesn’t, and where to adjust. It also allows a parish to dial back in case of an outbreak. When it is safe to do so, we will open fully. What a great day that will be.

My parish is doing one thing, and the parish in the next town is doing something else. Why is it different in different parishes?

Because the situation and resources at each parish are different, what works in Anchorage doesn’t necessarily work in Kodiak or Cordova or Dillingham. Local government regulations differ as well. Thus, pastors and administrators are given wide discretion in developing their safety plans.

Why are there no choirs or singing at Mass with a congregation?

The virus is spread by means of microdroplets that are released when a person speaks. The majority of these droplets travel about five feet, thus the recommendation for cloth face coverings and the ubiquitous “six-foot rule.” Singing or projecting one’s voice increases this distance to ten feet. Sadly, singing severely limits the number of people that can fit in the church.

Do I have to receive Holy Communion on the hand, or can I receive on the tongue?

Remember, while guidelines about communion help protect the congregation, they are primarily for the protection of your priests, who place themselves at great risk. Communicants are asked to receive in the hand since that is more sanitary. However, if in conscience, you must receive on the tongue, you may do so. Please talk to the celebrant first so that he may make appropriate preparations to protect himself.

Looking for online Mass, I tuned in to a parish I usually don’t attend and enjoyed the preaching much more than my own pastor’s. I got a lot out of the sermon but felt a little guilty. Can I watch Mass at one parish online and go to another for Communion?

Yes, you can watch any streamed Mass. But please support your own parish financially. More importantly, pray for your pastor. He can use all the prayers he can get!

Fr. Leo Walsh is a pastor, pilot, theologian, and canon lawyer. He is currently Pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Muldoon and Adjutant Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of Anchorage


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