CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki announced Thursday, April 30, in a conference call with priests and parish directors that churches in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will be allowed to resume public Mass on Pentecost Sunday, May 31.
In an interview with the Catholic Herald later that day, Archbishop Listecki described the plan as a “new Pentecost, a new beginning … a new vision based upon the challenges that we’re confronting.”
Auxiliary Bishop James T. Schuerman agreed, saying that “it’s really going to be a joyful thing” when the faithful and priests can once again congregate in their churches for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
“The one thing we get through emails and calls and interactions with people is, ‘I miss the Eucharist. When are we going to be able to come together at the Lord’s table?’” Bishop Schuerman said. “I think people are hungering for that.”
“The old phrase is, ‘You just don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,’” said Fr. Jim Lobacz, vicar for senior priests. “I really think that’s part of what is happening — we have missed this for so long and we look forward with great joy to having it again.”
Bishop Jeffrey R. Haines described the plan as being guided not just by concern for the physical safety of the faithful by also by moral principles.
“As the archbishop said in his letter, it’s a plan that’s reasonable, responsible, it’s safe and it respects our sacramental life,” he said.
Public Sunday Mass is just the beginning — the Catholic Comeback in its entirety outlines three phases for the return to all normal ecclesial activities, mirroring the progression of Gov. Tony Evers’ Badger Bounce Back plan. Phase One allows for in-person gatherings of 10 people or less. Phase Two plans for in-person gatherings of 50 people or less. In Phase Three, no restrictions on attendance need to be imposed.
As the state of Wisconsin moves through the Badger Bounce Back phases, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will move through the phases of the Catholic Comeback. “It isn’t so much a matter of putting down dates,” said Bishop Schuerman. “Rather, it’s going to be dependent upon the science behind this that determines if we’re ready to move on to the next phase.”
But the Mass we return to at the end of May will look and feel a bit different than the last public Mass celebrated in March. Also released on April 30 were a collection of directives to ensure the safety of both the faithful and the presiding priests. In compiling the directives, the archbishop consulted with other Wisconsin bishops, medical professionals and best practices.
“Many of our priests, including myself, would just like to open up the doors and have everybody come back,” said Archbishop Listecki. “As individuals who are reasonable and looking out for the safety of our parishioners, we know that’s not possible. The plan looked at how we could begin to open up our churches again and how to do it in a manner that was as safe as possible.”
Some of the directives include:
— Public Mass will be celebrated on Sundays only, as well as Saturday evening Mass of Anticipation.
— The obligation to attend Sunday Mass is dispensed through Sunday, July 5.
— Attendance at each individual Mass is limited to no more than 25 percent of a church’s occupancy permit. Social distancing of a minimum of six feet between people not living in the same household must be followed. At minimum, only every other pew should be used; use of only every third pew is preferred.
— “Help-out” priests can only celebrate at one parish per weekend, and optimally would only help out at one parish on a week-to-week basis to reduce the risk of spreading germs. Priests and deacons older than 65 or priests with pre-existing health conditions must receive permission to publicly celebrate Mass.
— Communion will not be distributed by the Cup. Holy water fonts should be emptied. No physical contact during the Sign of Peace is allowed.
— All Missals, Bibles, prayer cards or other paper resources will be removed from pews. Hospitality ministers and ushers will wear masks, and will not make physical contact when greeting parishioners.
— Collection baskets are not to be passed person-to-person. Baskets with long handles are allowed. Paper bulletins should not be distributed.
Additionally, guidelines were provided to be implemented at the discretion of the pastor or parish director. Some guidelines include:
— All those as defined by the health department as more vulnerable (those older than 60 years of age, those with compromised immune systems, those with underlying health conditions, those who are especially anxious about being in a large group, etc.) should be encouraged to stay at home.
— Mass attendance should be organized in some way, utilizing a sign-up system or by assigning or designating a Mass time to registered families. Some space designation must be allowed for walk-in attendance.
— Ushers should direct the Communion line and markings should be placed on the floor to preserve social distancing.
— Hand sanitizer should be available in the aisle(s) for use by people prior to receiving Communion.
— The use of familiar hymns is encouraged to limit any need for a worship aid.
There is no predetermined timeline for how long restrictions will be in place, and archdiocesan officials emphasize that there still will be a risk for anyone who attends a public Mass to contract the coronavirus.
Vicar for Clergy Fr. Jerry Herda said he has been in communication with many priests who are beginning to plan for the logistics of this “new normal,” which requires them to be hypervigilant about aspects of worship that many took for granted previously.
“It’s going to be a whole different way of doing things,” he said. “We need to figure out how to do social distancing within a church setting. Some of the things we just take for granted — you have to figure out how to maintain social distancing in the Communion line, or the other big one is how to get people to leave church in such a way that they don’t bunch together? The simple fact of the songbooks in the pew — you can’t have them there, because if someone touches it, it’s contaminated for the next Mass.”
Fr. Lobacz said that he is hoping the faithful will be understanding of the many and varied limitations that must be observed for the safety of all who gather for public Mass. The health and well-being of the Archdiocese’s senior priests must be a top priority, he said.
“I’ve got about 90 priests who go out and celebrate almost a third of the weekend Masses. They’re all over 70. Some are in their mid-80s,” he said. “I can’t think of a single senior priest who is not on some type of medication, and medications do different things to your body … some attack the immune system in order to be effective. While they may feel fine and think they are healthy and not at risk, every one of those 90 priests is at risk.”
It’s a heavy cross to bear for men who have spent their entire lives serving the Body of Christ through public prayer, he said. “They have a real passion for serving people, for being with people, for praying in public; they’ve been doing it for decades upon decades,” he said. He is urging each senior priest to consult closely with his personal doctor about whether or not he can celebrate public Mass, and for those who are given the “green light” it is likely that further safety precautions will be necessary.
Going forward into Phase One and beyond, Archbishop Listecki said his hope for the archdiocese is that this period of Eucharistic hunger has resulted in a stronger appreciation for the great blessing that is easy access to Mass and the sacraments.
“I really hope that as a community and as a church, we remember. We remember what it’s like not to have access to Mass. We remember what it’s like not to be able to go to Communion on a Sunday,” he said. “And if we remember, we incorporate it into our own spiritual lives and we become deeper in our relationship with the Lord.”