WASHINGTON, D.C. – One month after Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, announced there would no longer be public Masses in the diocese to curb the spread of the coronavirus, he reversed his decision saying public Masses could resume, with restrictions.
In an April 15 letter to diocesan priests, he said would allow public Masses that adhered to the governor’s restrictions through either outdoor services – with people in cars – or services inside churches with no more than five people present and practicing social distancing.
Both possibilities, he said, would comply with the governor’s restrictions on public gatherings.
He said the need to do this stemmed from a prevailing spiritual hunger, saying: “While we run a daily count of the physical deaths, we are overlooking those who are dead interiorly.”
“Depriving the faithful of the nourishment offered through the Eucharist was indeed a difficult decision, one that I deemed necessary until I had further clarity regarding our current state of affairs, but it cannot become the ‘status quo’ for the foreseeable future,” he wrote.
The bishop said he had determined a “safe way to proceed” with the acknowledgment that the state shutdown could likely last for some time.
Baldacchino, like some Catholics who have signed petitions seeking the reopening of churches, said in his letter that he did not agree with the state’s view that the Catholic Church is not an essential service that had to be open. This distinction has been given to grocery stores, banks, media outlets and restaurants with only carryout options.
“While it is true that we need to take every reasonable precaution to reduce the spread of coronavirus, it is equally true that we offer the greatest ‘essential service’ to our people,” he wrote, mentioning the many challenges people are enduring amid the pandemic that he said priests can address.
“In the midst of financial uncertainty, fear for one’s health, pandemic-induced anxiety and confinement to their homes, people need a word of hope. We, as priests, are called to bring the Word of Life to people, we are called to minister the life-giving sacraments. Televised Masses have been an attempt to bridge the gap during this time, but this is not enough,” he wrote.
He noted his own personal experience with the coronavirus, saying he had lost two close friends, who were priests. “I am fully conscious of the death and sadness these days seem to bring,” he said, adding that the pandemic also brings with it a chance to look at doing things a different way.
The current moment, he said, is “a time for renewal, a time for change, a time to break out of our schemas and our ‘usual way’ of ministering to the faithful. In the events of these days and weeks, the Lord is calling us out of our comfort zone, he is calling us to seek new ways to reach the people.”
He also stressed that in seeking new ways to follow its mission, the church also must keep people safe, stressing: “The two must be equally pursued.”
Baldacchino gave specific instructions for outdoor Masses, saying the faithful must keep social-distancing guidelines in place and that ideally this could occur in a parish parking lot with parishioners remaining in cars, parked a car space away from each other. If parishes do not have big parking lots, they could celebrate liturgies in open spaces or cemeteries, he suggested.
The bishop said Communion could be distributed, if the priests went directly to those receiving the Eucharist to avoid lines, with large hosts broken into large pieces and with priests wearing face masks and with their hands sanitized or they’re wearing gloves. The Communion cup would need to be primarily covered with Saran Wrap.
For indoor Masses, with fewer than five people present, he said the pews, chairs or other often-contacted surfaces should be sanitized afterward. He did not specify how parishes would determine the five participants, but a petition urging the bishops to reopen churches suggests this could be done by some type of lottery.
As part of his new order, the bishop said priests can continue to offer the sacrament of reconciliation “while taking all the necessary precautions” and the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. He also said weddings or funerals could take place with these same guidelines.
The new policy was not an invitation for everyone to attend the outdoor or limited indoor Masses. In fact, he urged priests to “encourage those who are older and those more at risk to remain at home during this time. “Pastoral visits to these people, while maintaining all safety precautions, is an essential part of our mission,” he added.
The bishop concluded his message by telling diocesan priests that with these new directives they will “be present to the faithful while abiding by all safety regulations set forth by the government.”
Across the country, bishops began canceling public Masses in mid-March following guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus. They have encouraged Catholics to instead watch livestreamed services and to tap into online resources for prayer and spirituality.