In Seattle, public Masses suspended, but prayer and ministry continue

Seattle cathedral Saint James Cathedral, Seattle, Wa. | DarrylBrooks/Shutterstock

The Archdiocese of Seattle has suspended public Masses and closed some Catholic schools, but priests in the archdiocese have been encouraged to keep churches open for prayer, to continue celebrating Mass privately, and to find ways to offer the sacrament of penance.

In a letter to priests and school leaders, Seattle's auxiliary bishop encouraged pastors to "set specific hours for the church to be open for private prayer, to "reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the Church for private prayer," and to "be available for pastoral emergencies, private meetings, anointing of sick, and so on."

"At the end of the day, we want to ensure we are slowing the spread of the coronavirus and protecting the vulnerable in our community, while also serving the needs of our parishioners," Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg wrote March 11, the same day public Masses were suspended in the archdiocese.

The decision to suspend Masses, Mueggenborg wrote, "was made for the common good and for the people of God entrusted in our care - many of whom are considered high risk and vulnerable. We must do our part to slow down this epidemic."

Even while Masses are suspended, "we do not want parish life to come to a screeching halt," the bishop added.

A spokeswoman for the diocese told CNA March 12 that the archdiocese also wants to ensure Catholics are able to make use of the sacrament of confession.

Pastors have been advised to move confession from confessionals into larger rooms where confidentiality can still be maintained, to use a screen to block airflow between priest and penitent, and to ensure a space of six feet between priest and penitent whenever possible.

 The archdiocese has said that conditions do not exist which would allow for "general absolution," in which penitents are sacramentally absolved of their sins without the practice of individual confession first. General absolution requires a situation of grave necessity before it can be permitted, according to the Church's canon law.    

Mueggenborg's letter also encouraged that Catholics "manifest Christ's love more than ever during these challenging times."

He suggested phone calls to homebound neighbors and nursing home residents, giving to food banks, and grocery shopping for the homebound, among other ideas.

The first known U.S. case of coronavirus was announced Jan. 21 in Washington. To date, 341 people have been diagnosed with the virus in Washington, and 29 have died. Across the nation, more than 1,400 people have contracted the virus, and at least 38 have died.

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