On April 15, the Las Cruces diocese issued guidelines providing that Masses could resume either outdoors or inside church buildings while conforming to state requirements on social distancing. The Diocese of Lubbock circulated its own guidelines on April 22, including provisions for restoring access to Communion for Catholics.
In their own public statements last week, Montana’s two bishops, Bishop Austin Vetter of Helena and Bishop Michael Warfel of Billings-Great-Falls also issued their own guidance on the phased reopening of churches in line with the governor’s announced plans.
Bishop Michael Warfel of Billings-Great Falls told CNA Wednesday that he took part in a call with several other bishops and White House officials earlier in the day.
“I was on a phone call just earlier this morning with the director and deputy director for domestic policy for the White House, and we were sharing our experiences [reinstituting public Masses],” he told CNA.
“They were very much interested in our experience and what we were doing.”
The calls were coordinated through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the request of the White House, sources told CNA, but the bishops’ conference did not play an active role in the discussions.
When contacted by CNA about the calls, White House spokespeople declined to comment. Calls to the USCCB were not returned by the time of posting.
Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, who was the first U.S. bishop to announce the resumption of public Masses during the coronavirus pandemic, released a statement to CNA confirming that he had taken part in a call but declined to elaborate on the discussion.
“I was contacted by some officials at the White House and am grateful for their concern for religious liberty and the responsible resumption of religious worship,” Baldacchino said. “I am always open and grateful for dialogue with civic leaders, regardless of the party.”
“It is my hope that even more government officials, especially at the state level, will come to recognize the essential nature of faith and worship,” Baldacchino told CNA. “I continue to pray that God grant wisdom and discernment to all our government leaders.”
During the calls, according to several people familiar with the conversations, administration officials expressed their hope to be able to support faith communities with “sensitive and respectful guidance” to help restore public worship “as soon as it is feasible,” and asked for details of local guidelines issued by the bishops.
The bishops highlighted their desire to conform with state-level public health regulations, and emphasized the need to protect at-risk populations, including the elderly. At the same time the bishops said they were committed to responding to the spiritual needs of local Catholics.
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“We are being cautious,” Warfel said of his own efforts to restore sacramental ministry. “We have protocols and restrictions, this isn’t a turn-key operation where a parish can just open the doors and say ‘y’all can come in,’ there are definite restrictions.”
On the calls, White House officials discussed the significance of state government designations of churches as either “essential” or “non-essential,” and asked about the response from both priests and people in the dioceses to the announcements that public Masses would resume.
Policy officials also discussed ideas for other possible ways of increasing the number of people who could attend Mass at a time, including the enforcement of larger spaces for social distancing rules between families, who could be seated in a group.
“I have continued the dispensation of Sunday and holy day obligations, and that will continue until we reach phase three [of the governor’s reopening plan], and I have encouraged those who are little more vulnerable to continue to stay home or maybe look at attending smaller events, maybe a weekday Mass,” said Warfel.
At the same time, he said, the absence of regular parish life has been felt keenly by local Catholics.
“The churches have to have the space needed, and have seats roped off [to enforce social distancing]. That’s often the hardest part for people – not being able to sit next to their friends and neighbors, it is a real hardship. People need people, that’s a part of communion, the gathering of the body of Christ to receive the body of Christ.”