"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.
"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."
Warfel told CNA that while much of the discussion has focused on the resumption of public Masses, other sacramental ministry was also vital to the lives of Catholics.
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"Look at funerals," he said to CNA. "In some areas we haven't been able to have anything past a burial service recently – we are talking about a very emotional, sensitive time in a family's life. If you can't have a funeral Mass it's very, very difficult."
According to those involved with the calls, the bishops were asked if they would consider it helpful if the CDC were to provide suggested guidelines for faith leaders to consider when reopening churches in accordance with state laws. The AP reported this week that draft CDC guidelines for religious groups are at the White House this week for review.
"I think they were just looking for guidance," Warfel told CNA.
"I don't know all of who they talked to, but my guidance is mostly on a statewide level not federal." He told CNA that, while it was for bishops to make the final decisions for their dioceses, consultation was important. In addition to taking advice from his own priests and local civil authorities, Warfel said the bishops of his region (USCCB Region XII) had set up a regular Tuesday conference call to share ideas.
"All these areas are so different," he said, and pointed out that local circumstances were important to consider when looking at options for restoring sacramental life.
Contrasting his own experience in Montana with urban areas hardest hit by coronavirus, like New York City, the bishop noted that "in much of my diocese we don't actually have any confirmed cases. We have sadly had some cases here in [the city of] Great Falls, but most of the counties are rural – in a few of them the cow population is greater than the people population."