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Churches prepare to reopen with new guidelines in place

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When President Trump declared houses of worship to be “essential,” the first question everybody had was, “When will my parish open?” The simple answer is, when the pastor says so.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to let churches open in New York state on June 6, tweeting, “The metrics and health data across the state are very positive. Taking that into account, churches, mosques and temples can reopen with 25 percent occupancy and with social distancing as part of Phase 2. This starts immediately for regions in Phase 2.”

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger immediately announced that any parish in the Diocese of Buffalo that is prepared to offer public liturgies, while maintaining the safety protocols detailed in the diocesan guidelines in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 threat, may do so. The decision to reopen is solely at the discretion of the pastor. In addition, because many priests serving in parishes throughout the diocese are themselves vulnerable, those priests may choose to (and are encouraged to) opt out of presiding if they have concerns about their personal health and safety. In those cases, a local parish may join with another local parish for public liturgies.

The dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains in place. All who are especially vulnerable or simply uncomfortable attending a public liturgy are encouraged to remain at home and view Mass via livestreams, which will continue in local parishes. For livestream information, visit the Live Stream Masses page at http://www.buffalodiocese.org/livestreams.

The Diocese of Buffalo has assembled a COVID-19 task force, led by Father Sean Paul Fleming, director of Worship for the diocese. The team has been working to implement the new diocesan guidelines, making sure they comply with state guidelines and those published by the Center for Disease Control that call for limiting exposure risk to older staff and those with medical conditions, having soap and hand sanitizer on the premises, and encouraging use of masks or other cloth face coverings. Other suggestions include rescheduling services so the premises may be adequately cleaned and limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people.

“We’re trying to follow the state guidelines, but we’re also trying to be even more cautious, more patient, just because we realize Masses of 10 people or less are not a practical thing and not really a goal, so we’re trying to maintain livestreaming and all those other things that have helped us,” explained Father Fleming.

The guidelines include the use of hand sanitizers, the cleaning of pews after Mass, distribution of the Eucharist, and handling of the sacrament of reconciliation. The task force is also organizing a FAQ to answer some of the questions they received from pastors and parish administrators. Father Fleming wants to “help the pastors hit the ground running.” The full list can be found at http://www.buffalodiocese.org/ guidance-reopening.

“A primary concern for me is the faith of our people,” Father Fleming said. “I’ve heard from so many of them, especially when President Trump had deemed faith as essential. I think he is right. Faith is essential. But I think we have to have some discernment to remember we have a moral obligation and responsibility to our people for their safety, for their health.”

Eileen Warner, director of pastoral ministry at St. Amelia’s, is using the Tonawanda parish as a guide for the diocesan playbook. “You’d be surprised how comprehensive this needs to be,” she said.

St. Amelia’s will be sending out letters to let parishioners know what to expect when they return to church. Parishioners must wear masks and might have to wait in line to enter the church. Ushers and Eucharistic ministers will have to undergo training on new procedures, such as how to deliver Communion – Host only, dropped into the open hand of the parishioner.

“We have to let all of our ushers know what is expected. We’re going to have a whole new path for how people come to Communion, not to have greeters at the front door who would bottleneck things, but have someone directing them where to go. We’re putting masking tape down on the carpet with arrows, saying, ‘For Communion follow the red tape or the blue tape.’ We’ll probably have someone MC when people walk in, reminding people, ‘Please move forward,’” Warner said. “So, Communion lines might take a little longer, but people are so excited to get back to Communion, I think they’ll be patient.”

Missalettes that are handled by many people will be removed from churches. The CDC suggests using prayer and song guides that can be disposed of after Mass. With four Masses a weekend at St. Amelia’s, that’s a lot of printing for a onetime use. Warner is looking into using projection screens to display readings.

Singing, which involves deep inhaling and exhaling that forces droplets farther than the social distance safe zone of six feet will be limited to only a cantor and organist without choirs.

The task force is also looking at safely holding reconciliation. A confessional would need to be wiped clean after each penitent. Father Fleming is considering using St. Joseph Cathedral’s chapel to offer a safe distance between priest and penitent. Some priests are doing it outdoors.

“One of the things I suggested putting in the COVID guidelines was to remind people in a pastoral way that the penitential rite at Mass is truly asking for forgiveness for our sins. So forgiveness of venial sins can happen at the penitential rite,” said Warner.

St. Amelia’s has received much positive response to the livestreamed Masses that began before the pandemic and will continue after, for the homebound parishioners.

“We did phone calls to the parishioners, more so to our senior population, because we thought some of them might not be online and might feel more out of touch. Across the board, everyone said what a Godsend the livestream has been,” Warner revealed.

The Tonawanda church has been open for private prayer, and holds a Holy Hour and rosary every weekday, allowing people to wander in, separate out, and be there for prayer.

The parish has also encouraged people to have a domestic church; to pray and watch Mass as a family. “We encourage people to make a prayer space in their home; something that reminds you of church. Families are the domestic Church,” Warner said.

Looking back at the past two months and ahead towards the future of the Buffalo Church, Warner remains hopeful. “It’s kind of a reset button in our lives. People who may have taken Mass and Church for granted are longing for it now. Once we have that desire, we might have a stronger and deeper appreciation for Eucharist, which is a beautiful thing for our Church.”


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