NEW YORK — Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has unveiled a five phased plan in anticipation of a return to Sunday Mass, in a way that cares for both the “souls and bodies of our people.” Although he did not commit to an exact date, he said it was possible that such a return could take place in six weeks time.  

During a joint press conference on Thursday held at the Church of Our Savior in Manhattan, Dolan was joined by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, where the leaders of the two dioceses said that religious gatherings are “essential services for the wellbeing of people.”

The New York cardinal applauded area Catholics for their “constant allegiance to the very wise restrictions of our respected healthcare professionals and elected officials,” but said it was time to make plans for a gradual return to an adjusted normal. 

The current “NY Forward” program managed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, which outlines the necessary steps for re-opening the state, does not outline a process for which houses of worship can reopen their doors. In response, the archdiocese has proposed a five phased plan, titled “Faith Forward,” which outlines various stages to precede the eventual full resumption of Masses and sacraments. 

DiMarzio said that the Diocese of Brooklyn will be releasing a similar plan in coming days, which is being overseen by Joe Esposito, the former Emergency Management commissioner for the City of New York and a parishioner in the diocese. 

Phase one of the Archdiocese of New York’s plan begins with the opening of churches for private prayer and confessions, followed by a phase allowing for baptisms and marriages limited to ten attendees, then another phase allowing for the distribution of communion outside of Mass, followed by daily Masses and funeral masses with limited attendance, and the eventual the celebration of Sunday Mass with supervised protocols. 

Dolan said that he anticipates a one to two week period in between each stage. 

Among the specific plans outlined for returning to services are the regular sanitation and disinfecting of churches, a ban on physical contact, spaced seating for individuals, couples, and families, the emptying of Holy Water and baptismal fonts, the installation of hand sanitizers at church entrances, and the temporary cessation of all non-essential gatherings, such as coffee hours or children’s groups. 

Attendance at each individual Mass will be limited to no more than 25 percent of a church’s capacity. The archdiocese noted that the proposed plan follows the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), while “at the same time, respects our traditions.” 

Meanwhile, the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is suspended until further notice and those who are feeling sick are asked not to attend services. 

During the May 21 press conference, DiMarzio said that Church leaders have been “prudent and careful not to begin services when it would be imprudent” and could negatively affect the health of those who attended the services. 

Both Dolan and DiMarzio said that the re-opening will look different “region by region, parish by parish,” noting that parishes in the upstate New York counties of the Archdiocese of New York will be better suited to re-open at a faster pace than many of the urban parishes. 

“Our people have been remarkably accommodating,” said Cardinal Dolan, of the ban on public Masses and sacraments since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of in-person Masses in mid-March. 

“Since the outset of the COVID-19 crisis in the New York region, our churches have been closed to public worship,” says the official guidelines for the “Faith Forward plan. “This was, indeed, a sad but necessary step to take for the health and safety of our parishioners and local communities. And it has worked.”

The cardinal, while not offering specific dates for a return to Sunday Mass said that six weeks “would be good.”  

“We will not preempt things,” said DiMarzio. “We will be cautious, but at the same time we will try to push as much as possible.”

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212