During this difficult time, many of the faithful across the United States and all around…
As Mass dispensations are lifted, parishes are left to accommodate the masked and the maskless
Some of Father John Ringley’s parishioners say they are “done” wearing face masks. Others are “terrified” of returning to Mass regardless of what public health officials in Connecticut say about the declining rates of COVID-19 infections.
“So I’m trying to balance both of those ends of that spectrum and trying to get as many people back in here as I can,” said Father Ringley, the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Ahead of the Sunday Mass obligation returning in his state, Father Ringley told Our Sunday Visitor that he was considering designating half of the church as a socially distanced and masked zone, with the other half a “free-range, do whatever you want” area for the fully vaccinated.
“Some people are opposed to that idea, but I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I have unvaccinated people who don’t want to wear masks, so what do I do? Kick them out? No. It’s a lose-lose for me.”
Father Ringley’s predicament is playing out in hundreds of parishes across the country. Individual pastors are having to figure out how to safely welcome back more of the faithful as bishops increasingly rescind their pandemic-related dispensations from the Sunday Mass obligation.
“My sense of the sensus fidelium, amongst my folks anyway, is that most of them don’t want to take off the masks inside the church,” said Father Bryan Small, the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur, Georgia.
Starting Memorial Day weekend, Father Small told Our Sunday Visitor that he planned to restrict the Saturday vigil Mass to vaccinated parishioners. For Sunday Masses, the front of the church was to be reserved for vaccinated individuals, with no distancing requirements. Unvaccinated parishioners would be asked to sit near the back, where every other pew would still be blocked off. No matter where they sit, parishioners would be required to wear masks.
“Maybe one of the Sunday morning Masses will be vaccinated-only,” Father Small said. “We’ll see.”
COVID still a concern
With declining COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations, combined with the growing percentage of Americans who have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, more Church leaders believe the time is right to rescind the dispensations from attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation that they decreed a year ago when the pandemic struck the United States.
Some bishops announced their intentions to lift their dispensations after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in mid-May that anyone who is vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities without wearing a mask or keeping more than 6 feet apart from other people, regardless of crowd size.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you are protected, and you can start doing the things that you stopped doing because of the pandemic,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said at a May 13 White House press briefing.
In recent weeks, governors across the country have announced plans to ease coronavirus restrictions, including lifting mask mandates for people who have been vaccinated. Major cities including Boston and Chicago have announced their own reopening plans.
However, the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 3.4 million people across the world since early 2020, is still circulating. The United States has not reached herd immunity — the point at which community spread stops — and experts are not sure if the country will ever reach that point because a significant percentage of Americans are refusing to get vaccinated. That means people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, especially those with underlying medical conditions, could still face health risks attending Mass where people are not wearing masks or keeping their distance.
“I don’t think it’s time to declare victory over the pandemic. For now, my wife and I have decided that we are not going to return to in-person Mass just yet,” said Arthur P. Urbano, a theology professor at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.
In Rhode Island, the Sunday Mass obligation returns on June 6. However, Urbano told Our Sunday Visitor that there are “some significant health conditions” in his household that continues to put him and his loved ones at higher risk than most people.
“So we decided it was in the best interest of our physical health and safety to remain distant,” Urbano said, adding that he is “irked” by people who characterize such decisions as fearful, irrational or lacking in faith.
“Those who are able to return now should understand it’s still not safe for everyone, like those who are still at high risk even with the vaccine,” Urbano said.
The dioceses that are bringing back the Sunday Mass obligation include exemptions for people who are ill with flu-like symptoms, in quarantine, believe they may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, or who themselves are vulnerable to COVID-19 because of underlying health issues.
“If anybody is sick with a cold or cough, they should forgo going to Mass. Those who are at increased risk, have weak immune systems, those who are super anxious or have underlying lung conditions, they may want to be extra careful,” said Dr. Timothy Flanigan, a professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Brown University.
Flanigan, who is also a Catholic deacon, told Our Sunday Visitor that the COVID-19 vaccines have proven so effective at reducing the risk of spread and serious infection that he does not believe there is an increased risk for most Catholics in returning to Mass.
“We’re very blessed in this country that the [infection] rates have fallen so dramatically, and that our vaccine is so extraordinarily effective. It’s one of the best vaccines we have,” he said. “The impact of the vaccine has been huge, and that’s really astounding. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”
Cathy Torrez, 34, who lives in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, told Our Sunday Visitor that she knows her bishop did not take the decision lightly to lift the dispensation for the weekend of June 6.
“Many of our restrictions were lifted at Easter this year, so lifting the dispensation makes sense in light of that,” Torrez said, adding that she and her family have regularly attended Mass since public liturgies resumed in her diocese last May.
“I was hesitant when our priest announced the restrictions would be lifted. We have three little kids … so the fact that they cannot even really take precautions made me nervous,” Torrez said. “And our Easter Mass was packed. But since then, it’s returned to the normal pandemic attendees, so I’m more comfortable with them and our ability to take some precautions with the kids, such as maintaining social distancing.”
Torrez said she is vaccinated but intends to wear a mask to encourage her two older kids to continue to do so. Meanwhile, pastors will have to depend in large part on the goodwill discernment of their parishioners.
“If you lie about being vaccinated while coming to church, I think there’s a larger issue there,” said Father Small, whose parish is in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which reinstated the Sunday Mass obligation on May 22.
Urbano, from Providence College, urged all Catholics to be patient and understanding as the dispensations are lifted.
“While it is a wonderful thing to finally return to Mass, I would hope that they realize there are some within the community for whom the transition will be more gradual. The vulnerable are still vulnerable in many cases. I’m glad Bishop (Thomas) Tobin acknowledged this in his letter to the Diocese of Providence. But it will still take effort on the part of parishes and priests to creatively continue to include those members of the community whose transition back will be slower.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.