Maine's Catholic churches will continue attendance at Mass, while ecumenical group urges online services

Portland_MN_cathedral_Kelly_Lynn_Butler_Shutterstock.jpg The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conceptionin Portland, Maine. Credit: Kelly Lynn Butler/Shutterstock

The Diocese of Portland will continue to permit attendance at Mass, even as the state’s Council of Churches has urged all services to move online in light of a recent surge in coronavirus cases.

“This isn’t about sending care packages or Hallmark cards (though those are certainly nice),” said Maine Council of Churches Executive Director Jane Field in a statement published Jan. 4.  

“For starters, it’s about making the difficult and necessary decision to return to virtual online worship services only and refrain from in-person church gatherings during this deadly surge.  It’s also about sending a clear message from the pulpit that getting vaccinated, boosted, and wearing masks when in public is a moral imperative for anyone who follows the commandment to love their neighbor,” she added.

Further, said Field, churches should “offer up [their] church building as a pop-up vaccine clinic site.” 

Field, a Presbyterian minister, has served Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian congregations throughout the northeast. She was the pastor at Faith Lutheran Church prior to becoming the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches. 

Going online, promoting vaccines, and taking other steps is “how faith communities can best help reduce the spread of COVID, which is the only way to provide effective and meaningful relief and support to weary and overrun hospitals and their staff,” she said. 

Maine’s hospitals are seeing close to record levels of Covid-19 hospitalization, with 380 people hospitalized. The Maine CDC reported 1,302 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday. 

Maine has the third-highest Covid-19 vaccination rate in the country, with 76.1% of its total population fully vaccinated. 

The Maine Council of Churches is led by a board of directors, and represents seven Protestant denominations in the state: Episcopalian, Unitarian-Universalist, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran ,and Quaker.

The Diocese of Portland left the Maine Council of Churches in 2018. The diocese left after the council changed its policy to release statements approved by a majority vote, rather than unanimous consent of the then-eightcommunities.

Dave Guthro, a spokesperson for the diocese, told the Portland Press Herald that access to the Eucharist is one of the motivating factors for keeping churches open. 

The diocese has recommended that all who attend Mass in person wear masks, and some parishes live-stream Masses. 

“The diocese has complied with (government) protocols and rules put into place and, in many cases, has enforced even stricter safeguards in our churches to ensure the safety of parishioners and the wider community,” he told the Press Herald.

There have been no Covid-19 outbreaks traced to any of Maine’s 141 Catholic churches. 

“During the Christmas season, which runs through Jan. 9, the large majority of Catholics attending Masses have been wearing masks, which is great to see,” said Guthro. 

“But not having daily and weekly access to the Eucharist, the very presence of Christ at Catholic Masses, would be a great hardship for thousands of Mainers,” he added. “It is also the Catholic Church’s responsibility to be open for the many health care workers and other first responders who need the spiritual comfort and support at this incredibly difficult time in history.”

In an updated statement released Jan. 6, Field, the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, apologized for what she called a “hasty, but heartfelt” earlier statement. 

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“Nuance, consultation and collaboration went out the window—and I’m truly sorry for the ways in which that created confusion, tension or even conflict for clergy, congregations and judicatories,” she said. 

“And…we’ve also received calls and email from clergy and lay leaders letting us know that, even if they’ve decided returning to virtual worship services isn’t the right solution for their particular context, they are doing AMAZING work to keep their congregations and communities safe and to let our frontline health care staff know how much we care about supporting them in their heroic efforts,” Field added.

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