In dioceses big and small across the country, public Masses are being cancelled because of public health concerns over the novel coronavirus.
In other dioceses, parishes will be open for Sunday liturgies, but a growing number of local bishops are telling the faithful that they are not obligated to attend Mass if they are sick or at serious risk of infecting loved ones who could be vulnerable to the virus, which causes a potentially deadly respiratory disease.
Now more than ever, knowing what COVID-19 is, how it spreads, the threat it poses and how to protect oneself and loved ones is extremely important for Catholics, especially in discerning whether they should attend Mass or even venture into public places.
“Remind your parishioners that if they are exhibiting flu-like or cold symptoms, they are not obliged to attend Sunday Mass. In fact, until there is more information about the coronavirus and its spread, one should out of charity avoid public events if experiencing such symptoms,” Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut said in a recent directive.
That directive stands for the faithful of his dioceses. For others, it’s important that readers seek out information specific to their own dioceses, via their websites, social media accounts or contacting the diocesan office.
Commonsense prevention tips
On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises everyone to wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water, or with an alcohol-based disinfectant, and to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
Based on that advice, the Diocese of Dallas posted a helpful — with a welcome light-hearted touch — “How to Handwash Catholic Style!” illustrated guide to properly washing one’s hands for 30 to 45 seconds while saying the Lord’s Prayer, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be.
“Clean hands are life savers… and prayers save souls!” the Dallas guide adds.
The CDC also urges Americans to avoid close contact with anyone who is sick and to keep a safe distance between oneself and other people — at least 6 feet.
Those who are sick or believe they could be infected with the coronavirus are urged to stay home and wear a facemask when around other people or visiting a health care provider. They also are advised to cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, or use the inside of their elbow. The CDC advises people to throw away used tissues in the trash and immediately wash their hands with soap and water.
In addition, people should clean and disinfect on a daily basis frequently touched surfaces in their homes such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, desks, phones, faucets, sinks, toilets and keyboards.
Catholic leaders everywhere are following public health officials’ lead in stressing the importance of protecting oneself and others from the coronavirus, which spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The World Health Organization has labeled the coronavirus a global pandemic.
“We need to remember that our preparations (i.e., washing our hands frequently, disinfecting any public area that is touched by many people, etc.) is an act of charity, protecting not simply ourselves but the most vulnerable in our midst, especially the elderly and sick,” Bishop Caggiano wrote.
More bishops across the country are granting dispensations for the Sunday Mass obligation. Older adults — those over age 60 — as well as people with underlying medical conditions and loved ones of people of such individuals are being urged to take special care in discerning the best course of action.
“Until this current health care crisis passes, the best thing we can do to take care of ourselves and one another is not to wander aimlessly, but to stick together with purpose. We can stay comfortable at home and we can comfort one another,” Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany said in statement where he announced he was temporarily suspending the Sunday Mass obligation.
The Diocese of Albany said that until further notice, Catholics should use their prudential judgement as to whether or not to attend Mass. That advice pertains to all Catholics everywhere who are living in dioceses that have not yet cancelled all public Masses.
“The archdiocese has always advised the faithful that sickness is a valid reason not to attend Mass or other Church gatherings. As such, any individual who is sick or has flu-like symptoms is urged to stay home,” the Archdiocese of Newark advised in a guidance document posted online.
Catholic bishops and diocesan officials across the country have noted that those who do not attend Mass because of coronavirus concerns can watch the Holy Sacrifice on several television channels. Many local cable outlets and radio stations broadcast the Mass daily, not to mention national Catholic networks such as EWTN and CatholicTV, which also have online live feeds.
Those who watch the Mass from home are advised that they can make a “spiritual Communion” until they return to health or the crisis passes.
Wherever they may be, above all, Catholics are urged to pray.
“Please pray for the sick, caregivers and those people whose lives are tragically impacted by this pandemic,” Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, wrote this week on Twitter. Bishop Stika also urged his Twitter followers to pray through the intercession of the saints and angels.
Said Bishop Stika: “My advice is to turn off all news, check out the CDC daily, refrain from any Catholic websites that criticize any decision of any bishop in regards to pastoral decisions which can or will be made in accord to protect the common good. It is going to get worse before it gets better, and pray the prayer that the pope has given us to pray.”
On March 11, Pope Francis recited a video-recorded prayer where he asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to protect Italy and the world during the pandemic. On March 13, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, in his capacity as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a reflection and prayer during the coronavirus threat.
“God does not abandon us, he goes with us even now in this time of trial and testing,” Archbishop Gomez wrote. “In this moment, it is important for us to anchor our hearts in the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Now is the time to intensify our prayers and sacrifices for the love of God and the love of our neighbor. Let us draw closer to one another and in our love for him, and rediscover the things that truly matter in our lives.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.