SMYRNA, Georgia — In an April 23 letter to the faithful, the bishops of Georgia discussed the decision to suspend public liturgies through the end of May following Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement April 20 permitting some businesses to reopen.
The decision was made after meeting with the colleges of consultors of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah.
“Knowing how much Catholics everywhere are yearning to return to the Eucharist and to gather once again in our churches, we must communicate that, having struggled with our decision, we believe that we must yet maintain the current practice of sheltering in place,” said the prelates.
“With input and support from the priests of both the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah, we are, for the safety of all Georgia residents, not authorizing the return to congregating at churches or making our churches available for devotions,” they wrote.
“This will extend through the month of May,” they said. “If the sheltering-in-place and social-distancing guidelines are altered significantly during this time, we will reexamine the possibility of congregating at churches.”
Signing the letter were: Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, Savannah’s bishop who was named by Pope Francis March 5 to head the Archdiocese of Atlanta and will be installed May 6; Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Joel M. Konzen, who has been serving as archdiocesan administrator; and Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III.
“We will take the time from now until we do resume regular liturgies and sacraments to carefully plot the conditions — including matters of numerical management, required spacing, and sanitation — under which churches may safely return to offering regular gatherings,” they said. “The dispensation from Saturday or Sunday Mass attendance is, of course, still applicable, although Catholics are expected to avail themselves of the virtual Mass each week.”
In conclusion they said: “This is an unprecedented time in history, and we hardly imagined a time when we would have to weigh our church’s spiritual progress against the brute necessities of general health and survival. But, we live in the reality of Easter, and even now we rejoice in the goodness of God and the saving grace of the risen Lord.”
Across the country in Montana, Bishop Austin A. Vetter of Helena, in consultation with Bishop Michael W. Warfel of Great Falls-Billings and “with a mind for the safety of all,” announced the phased reopening of Catholic churches, issuing detailed directives with several restrictions. The April 23 directives also emphasized parishes also must follow “any local governmental determinations.”
The obligation to attend Sunday Mass continues to be suspended, Vetter said, adding that his livestreamed Masses will continue at http://www.diocesehelena.org. Warfel’s Masses are livestreamed on the diocese’s Facebook page, which also has posted includes these detailed directives.
Parishes must submit a detailed plan for reopening to receive approval, Vetter said. Among the directives that must be followed are: Social distancing of six feet must be maintained and managed — when entering and leaving the church, with seating between nonfamily members and during the Communion procession; provisions need to be made in advance to ensure social distancing at all times; ropes and tape may be used; the invitation to the sign of peace is to be omitted, and no sign of peace offered.
“There is not to be a procession of the offertory gifts of bread and wine, they will be brought forward from a credence table in the sanctuary,” continued the directives in part. “Priests may wish to remind the faithful that they are not required to receive Communion. Distribution of holy Communion is to be offered in the hand only, with just care and reverence.”
Offertory baskets cannot be passed but can be made available “in a suitable location,” holy water must be removed from fonts, and frequently touched surfaces in the church must be properly cleaned frequently according to Centers for Disease Control guidelines. The most who can be at Mass is 10.
“If adequate spacing and social distancing and cleaning cannot be managed, or you cannot do all of the requirements, then the church cannot be reopened “at this time,” said the directives.
Vetter said that the Diocese of Helena is working on a plan to reopen the chancery offices.
“All priests are encouraged to provide reasonable and prudent measures to ensure everyone’s safety, including their own,” he said. “Everyone is encouraged to continue to practice good hygiene. People who feel sick should remain at home as should vulnerable and at-risk populations. People and priests may wear a mask.”
Golden is editor of The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.