"We are dealing with an invisible threat to people's lives, a virus that our brightest doctors and scientists are still figuring out. The ever-present temptation in our American culture is to want solutions immediately and to act quickly, because we want what we want, and we want it now. As a Church, we must proceed more deliberatively," he said.
Coakley told CNA that while he understands Catholics' fear, anger and frustration during these past two months of suspended Masses, he also encouraged them to think of their time away as a way of serving others.
"We're really living through a health crisis, a time of severe challenges, and it's impacting us in so many ways economically, and in terms of social isolation, loneliness, the liturgy also. But I think we need to think beyond individual rights and consider also our responsibilities toward one another, especially the responsibility to love and serve one another, to be mindful of one another's needs."
On May 3, Bishop Carl Kemme of the Diocese of Wichita announced plans to reopen public Masses starting on Wednesday, May 6, following recommendations of the county's local public health authorities.
Phase one of the guidelines will last until May 20, and they stipulate that parishes may hold Masses at no more than 33% capacity. Churches will use only one entrance, so that the number of people coming may be properly counted and seated, and six foot spacing should be clearly marked so that people can maintain social distance.
Mass attendees are encouraged to wear masks, and priests are required to wear them while distributing communion. Parishes are also encouraged to keep hand sanitizer available at entrances, and parishioners are "strongly encouraged" to receive communion in the hand.
Fr. Clay Kimbro is the parochial vicar at St. Anne's parish in Wichita. Kimbro said he and the other priests of the diocese have been having weekly virtual talks with the bishop about when to re-open Masses and what that might look like, and so priests were able to give feedback as to what guidelines they thought would work well.
At St. Anne's, which has 1,200 families, Kimbro and his leadership team have been meeting and working on logistical things, like roping off every other pew so that Mass attendees can maintain proper distancing.
He said he has also had extra meetings with his ushers, who on the weekends will "seat everyone so that they can make sure that the distance is maintained. That's a lot more responsibility than our ushers are normally given."
Kimbro said the parish is not having parishioners sign up for Masses online. Instead, if more people show up than the allowed 33%, the overflow congregation will be directed to the school's auditorium, where a second priest - either Kimbro or his pastor - will celebrate a concurrent Mass, also with social distancing protocols in place.
"We were a little leery of (adding Mass times), because when you add Mass times, it's hard to take them back," Kimbro said. "Also, it's hard to turn people away. They come to the door at 10 a.m. for Mass, and we say, 'Come back at 1:00 p.m.' Well, it's a lot easier to say, 'Go over to the auditorium.'"
Kimbro said the parish is working on decorating the auditorium to make it an appropriate place to have Mass, and they are also putting down tape lines to direct traffic and to mark distances.
"There's a lot of work in planning, and it can be a little overwhelming, but we're overall just really excited to see people again," he said.
St. Anne's parishioners have been "all over the map" in terms of their eagerness to return to Mass at this time, Kimbro said. Some have been signing up to read at Mass, or to usher or distribute communion, because they miss Mass so much and they want to be involved.
Others are a bit more anxious, Kimbro said, and he has encouraged those people to attend weekday Masses, where there are likely to be fewer people.
He also added that the Sunday obligation continues to be dispensed for everyone, as Bishop Kemme made clear in his May 3 announcement.
"I do want to emphasize that the current pandemic is far from over. Medical experts tell us that this health crisis remains a very serious threat to the lives of many people," Kemme stated.
"Because of this, I want to urge all those in the high risk population and others who so choose to continue to use the general dispensation I am giving from the obligation to attend the Sunday celebration of the Mass, which continues indefinitely during this crisis. Please do not put yourself or others at risk by attending the Masses once they resume. This is my urgent appeal to all in our Catholic Community: use extraordinary caution and good judgment in determining if you should attend Mass. No mortal sin is committed if you decide that you and your family should not attend."
Kimbro said that he is looking forward to having parishioners come back to Mass, even though it might not be the triumphant return that some may have envisioned just yet, with everyone packing in the pews like normal.
"I think everybody was hoping it would kind of be like this post-9/11 experience, where churches are packed and everybody recognizes that need (for God), but we're tempering that, and it's kind of like everything in this virus, right? Our expectations versus our reality - having to live in the reality of the moment and what we're given and just go with that," he said.
"But then I looked at the Gospel for this Sunday that we're back, and the first line is: 'Do not let your hearts be troubled.' So that's perfect."
Mary Farrow worked as a staff writer for Catholic News Agency until 2020. She has a degree in journalism and English education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.