Plan Guiding Gradual Reopening of Archdiocese’s Parish Churches for Masses, Sacraments

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Cardinal Dolan and other Church officials presented an Ascension Thursday overview of a comprehensive plan to reopen the 288 parish churches of the archdiocese.

The plan, called Faith Forward, offers five levels, or stages, that will seek to move gradually and safely toward a return to the availability of the sacraments and, ultimately, Sunday Mass attendance.

The guidelines were outlined during a morning press conference at Our Saviour Church in Manhattan May 21.

Since then, the plan has been slightly modified, including a language clarification featuring distinct wording that will not be confused with the recovery “phases” outlined by governmental officials at the state and city levels, said Msgr. Joseph LaMorte in a phone interview this week with Catholic New York.

Msgr. LaMorte, the vicar general and moderator of the curia in the archdiocese, said one effective clarification was when the archdiocese “decided we would not use the word ‘phases’ at all,” substituting “levels” or “stages.”

The five levels, as Msgr. LaMorte explained in the interview, are as follows:

In Level 1, the current level, parish churches are open for private prayer during the day, with access to the sacrament of confession, at the discretion of the pastor and with regard for the safety of priest and penitent.

Level 2 would allow for the celebration of baptisms and marriages, with an attendance limit of 10 persons, as prescribed by government officials.

Level 3 would feature the resumption of weekday and Funeral Masses.

Level 4 would be marked by the resumption of Sunday Masses, with a “supervised” attendance, Msgr. LaMorte said.

Level 5 would entail a “back to normal” Sunday Mass schedule, which Msgr. LaMorte indicated was likely still months away.

An earlier step, to distribute Communion in churches on weekdays, was culled from the plan by Cardinal Dolan after a number of priests raised questions about its implementation, Msgr. LaMorte said.

On May 29, Cardinal Dolan held a videoconference with priests of the archdiocese in which he reiterated “the need for everybody to be in harmony with each other” in the implementation of the reopening plan in archdiocesan parishes, Msgr. LaMorte said.

Unity of purpose is even more important in an archdiocese that covers Hudson Valley counties as well as New York City boroughs, with varying reopening times for each, according to the statewide tier system.

“The cardinal said we have to be serious about the restrictions placed upon us,” even with the inevitable confusion caused by differences in when liturgies can be resumed in different areas of the archdiocese, Msgr. LaMorte said.

Priests also heard from archdiocesan officials including Msgr. LaMorte; Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen, vicar for clergy; Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities; Scott LaRue, president and CEO of ArchCare; and Michael Deegan, superintendent of schools in the archdiocese. The clergy had an opportunity to submit questions and comments.

At the May 21 press conference, Msgr. La-Morte spoke about his work leading a task force comprising priests, primarily pastors, and senior staff members of archdiocesan offices that created the comprehensive guidelines over a six-week period.

Msgr. LaMorte said two driving forces guided task force members in their discussions.

“The desire of people, including the priests, to get the churches open and for us to return to Mass and the sacraments. Everybody misses them very very much,” he said.

The second priority was that the return to church and the sacraments be accomplished “in a safe, gradual way, following the advice of health officials and observing the guidelines of the elected officials,” Msgr. LaMorte said.

Because the exposure to the coronavirus experienced by Catholics in New York City and nearby suburbs was much greater than in the upper counties of the sprawling archdiocese, “we recognize that not every parish will open at the same time,” Msgr. LaMorte said.

The vicar general noted one constant in all parishes would be that priests would begin to be tested for the virus on a weekly basis. “It’s a great reassurance for the people,” he said.

At the outset of the press conference, Cardinal Dolan noted the “10 difficult weeks” experienced by the archdiocese and its 2.8 million Catholics since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, which forced the closure of churches in the archdiocese other than for private prayer, since the weekend of March 14-15.

One of those joining the cardinal was Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses Brooklyn and Queens, both among the hardest hit of New York City’s boroughs, in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The third borough most severely impacted by the virus is the Bronx, which along with Manhattan and Staten Island is part of the Archdiocese of New York. The archdiocese stretches north and west to include seven other counties—Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, Dutchess and Ulster.

“The Catholic community in New York City…has been constant in its allegiance to the very wise restrictions of our respected health care professionals and our elected officials these 10 difficult weeks and we intend to continue to do so,” Cardinal Dolan said.

“Houses of worship provide essential services for the well being of our people,” the cardinal said. “We hear from them daily. They very much miss Mass and Holy Communion, the sacraments,” including confession, baptisms, confirmation and various other liturgical celebrations.

The cardinal said the archdiocese and its parishes have “a moral imperative to protect the health of our people and the wider community. We have been doing that…and we will continue doing that.”

“We also have a responsibility to care for the hearts and souls of our people.”

An executive summary of “Faith Forward” cites the eagerness of New York’s Catholic community to resume public worship “in a safe and responsible manner.” It goes on to say that “we are proposing a phased plan which follows the latest guidance from the CDC and which, at the same time, respects our traditions.”

There is also a detailed breakdown on general principles, celebration of Mass and additional sacramental considerations.

The plan includes the following policies and procedures:

Churches will be regularly sanitized and disinfected. Signage will be placed on entrance doors instructing anyone with fever or flu-like symptoms not to enter the church. Parishioners must wear masks.

No physical contact will be permitted during the sign of peace.

Parish safety committees and ushers will be trained to receive parishioners and escort them to suitable seating arrangements set up for social distancing for the protection of priests and parishioners. Ushers and parish security teams will coordinate orderly arrivals and departures.

Pews will be prepared to safeguard parishioners and will follow published protocols for singles, couples, families with one child and families with more than one child.

Frequently touched surfaces in the church (pews/pew tops, door handles, microphones) will be cleaned and sanitized per CDC recommendations after every liturgy. Restrooms will be cleaned between Masses.

Hand sanitizer dispensaries will be available at all church entrances.

At arrival and departure times, entrance doors will be propped open to limit contact with door handles. Where possible, pedestrian movement patterns will be instituted to minimize close contact between parishioners, including dedicated access ways for entrance and departure.

Utilization of lower church/parish center facilities for additional Masses if the church is full, and live video display of services will be continued to alleviate any attendance overflow.

Holy water and baptismal fonts will be emptied.

Additional Mass times may be added at the pastor’s discretion.

Online worship aids will be encouraged. If paper worship aids are used, they should be limited to one page, and attendees should be directed to take them with them after Mass. Those left in a pew must be collected and destroyed after each Mass.

No paper bulletins will be distributed. Parish bulletins/news will be posted to the parish website or emailed to parishioners.

Non-essential gatherings will be suspended, including Children’s Liturgy of the Word, post-Mass social gatherings/refreshments, etc.

Communion will be distributed only via the Host; the Precious Blood will not be offered.

A cantor will be permitted; large choirs will not be used.

Collection baskets will not be passed from person to person. Baskets with long handles will be allowed. Ushers taking the collection will wear masks and gloves. Large baskets may be placed at church exits for people to drop envelopes or donations. Ushers must sanitize their hands immediately after the collection.

There will be no greeting of people following Mass.

Other archdiocesan officials and department directors were present at Our Saviour. They included John Cahill, chancellor of the archdiocese; Msgr. Kevin Sullivan; Scott LaRue; Michael Deegan; Wanda Vasquez, director of Hispanic Ministry; Father Eric Cruz, director of Bronx Catholic Charities; and Joseph Zwilling, director of communications, who offered introductory remarks for the press conference.

Msgr. Sullivan, who also serves as administrator of Our Saviour Church, offered practical examples of how the guidelines would be applied in the church.

He said holy water bowls have been removed, missals and other worship aids would be taken out of the church, and masks would be provided to Mass-goers who are not wearing them when they enter.

Seating in pews was marked to observe social distancing requirements, with some sections reserved for families and other seating for individuals.

He also showed how social distancing could be practiced in the area near the baptismal font, and that the sanctuary was sufficiently large for a small wedding ceremony.

“That gives you an idea of how in one church, we can be safe and we can pray together,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

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