PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — Responding to growing fears over the spread of the coronavirus, Archbishop Nelson J. Perez March 17 announced suspension of all public Masses in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia until further notice, effective at noon March 18.
In an effort to stem the pandemic of COVID-19, bishops’ conferences and dioceses around the world have been suspending public Masses. In the U.S. at least 147 archdioceses and dioceses, including Philadelphia, have canceled all public Masses and that number of dioceses seems to grow hourly.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, even before the suspension of public Masses and school closings, U.S. Catholic dioceses have taken precautions to guard against the virus’ spread. Among the most common preventative measures have been urging reception of holy Communion in the hand, suspension of distribution of the Communion cup and exchanging the sign of peace without physical contact.
They also are continuing to remind parishioners to take commonsense steps related to hygiene in their personal lives.
In his announcement, Perez said his top priority “is to ensure the health and welfare of those entrusted to the pastoral and temporal care of our church. So, in light of the developing coronavirus pandemic, a decision has been made to suspend the public celebration of all Masses in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for the time being.
“All of us need to do our part to slow the spread of this illness. Like you, we are monitoring coronavirus developments and look forward to continuing our lives on a more normal basis.”
A week earlier, Perez relieved Catholics from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass in accordance with the advice of government leaders and health department officials at the local, state and federal levels on the growing urgency of the need to limit public gatherings to limit person-to-person transmission of the virus.
“While things may look and feel different during these uncertain times, I want to be very clear that the Catholic Church in Philadelphia is not closing down,” Perez said March 17 about his decision to now cancel public Masses. “It is not disappearing and it will not abandon you.
“Time and again as our history has proven, the church has risen to meet great challenges and provide a beacon of hope and light.”
According to these new liturgical guidelines issued by the archdiocese, Sunday and weekday Masses will be celebrated privately by priests and Mass intentions will be honored, but will not include congregations publicly.
The sacrament of penance and Masses for funerals and weddings will continue for a small number of participants “and reasonable social distancing” in the church, according to the guidelines. Confessions are to take place in the church, not in a rectory or office.
Although public Masses will not be celebrated, churches are to remain open according to their normal custom for people to visit and pray. Eucharistic adoration may be offered to visitors who should be limited in number and who are encouraged to keep their distance from one another.
“As your shepherd, I promise that the church remains steadfast and is prepared to walk with you and serve you. Neither the church nor its charitable works will stop. God is always by our side,” Perez said. “He never abandons us. I invite you to join me in prayerful solidarity for the intentions of the sick, suffering, and their caregivers as well as government and health officials.
“With God’s grace and blessing, we will navigate the difficult waters of this challenge as a united human family, for after all is said and done, we are people of hope!”
Other aspects of church life affected by the directive include a cessation of Communion calls to the sick in homes and hospitals, and Eucharistic celebrations outside of Mass. Liturgies for first penance and first holy Communion may be postponed to a later date.
Confirmations also will be postponed, as will annual celebrations scheduled for March at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Updates on the public schedule of liturgies for Holy Week spanning Palm Sunday, April 5, to Easter Sunday, April 12, will be forthcoming, according to the guidelines.
Catholics in the archdiocese were invited to pray at home and review the Scripture readings for daily and Sunday Mass, choose to view the Mass on television or in a livestreamed on the internet, or pray the rosary with other local faithful nightly online, by video conference or via telephone.
In Alaska, Bishop Andrew E. Bellisario, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, said in a March 17 letter to the faithful of the archdiocese: “We have completed our first weekend since the suspension of public Masses, all services, faith formation and large gatherings in our churches for the common good. I know this is difficult for all of us.
“I want to thank you for your cooperation and patience as we do everything we can to protect one another. I also want to thank you for your care of yourself, your family, and all your brothers and sisters; that you are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to help keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Bellisario, who also heads the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska and also has suspended public Masses in his diocese, urged Catholics to continue to listen to the guidance of all local, state and federal government officials on all the steps they must take to avoid getting the virus and transmitting it to others.
“We need to listen to all of these voices and trust that God is speaking to us through them,” he wrote. “Even with the suspensions and social distancing, we remain the people of God in prayer and communion.” In the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, Bishop Chad W. Zielinski also has now suspended public Masses through April 3.
Among other dioceses just announcing the temporary suspension of all public Masses is the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, effective March 20 through April 5, which is Palm Sunday. The annual Chrism Mass April 7 has been relocated to St. Augustine Cathedral in Kalamazoo, and attendance will be limited to priests only. It will be livestreamed.
In addition, the diocesan pastoral Center will be closed to the public from March 20 through April 5, with employees working remotely.
Bishop Paul J. Bradley has directed asked priests to keep our churches open/unlocked “as much as possible during this time of crisis,” and invited Catholics to spend time in church for prayer and reflection in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
In a March 18 letter, he conveyed how difficult the decision was to suspend Masses and encouraged people to stay strong in their faith.
“Being unable to come to Mass and receive the gift of the Eucharist is a huge sacrifice that we must make to protect the health and well-being of all those with whom we come in contact,” Bradley wrote. “While this restriction is temporary, and I pray, short-lived, our faith life continues.”
“We must stay strong in the practice of our faith through our individual times of prayer, as well as increased family prayer times; our own spiritual reading and reflection on God’s holy word; the praying of the rosary, and other important devotions and spiritual practices,” he added.
Gambino is director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
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