An electrostatic disinfectant is applied to the pews at Christ the King Church in Nashville, Tenn. Bishop J. Mark Spalding has reinstated public Masses in the diocese at the discretion of pastors. CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register

Archdiocese plots plans for re-opening

  • May 20, 2020

As Ontario and other provinces slowly begin to re-open a society that’s been in lockdown for more than two months, Church officials are well on their way in preparing for the lifting, or modifying, of the ban on large-scale gatherings like Mass celebrations.

With stores re-opening, golf courses welcoming players on the Victoria Day long weekend and even talk of re-starting professional sports leagues across North America and the world, it is inevitable that pressure will build to allow people to once more attend religious services.

The Archdiocese of Toronto won’t be the ones applying pressure, said Jim Milway, chancellor of temporal affairs. Cardinal Thomas Collins has been clear the local Church would defer to public health officials in plotting its strategy. Consultations with other Ontario dioceses will also determine the future. Still, plans have been worked on since almost day one to prepare for when parishioners can once again celebrate Mass.

“We all want to be able to return to the sacraments as soon as possible and when it is safe to do so,” said Neil MacCarthy, director of public relations and communications with the archdiocese. “We have five task forces that are working on various considerations related to re-opening.”

These task forces are focusing on churches/sacramental life, parish offices, chancery and satellite offices, human resource and finance issues as well as best practices moving forward, said MacCarthy.

Some dioceses across North America have already released liturgical directives on resuming public Masses, which have been banned across the continent since mid-March. Dioceses in Montana were among the first to open, but the state is a mainly rural one with small urban areas. Chicago and Detroit, however, have posted directives to begin opening churches, with restrictions. Detroit was allowed to resume public Masses May 19 while Chicago is phasing in re-openings as of May 23, with baptism, confessions weddings and funerals allowed, though with a limit of 10 people. Weekday and weekend Masses will begin May 30 for larger gatherings depending on state guidelines.

In Canada, Vancouver was preparing guidelines to allow some churches to celebrate Mass with a maximum of 50 people as early as May 23-24. The Archdiocese of Regina will allow Masses with up to 10 people by the end of the month.

The Toronto archdiocese hosted a series of webinars May 14-15 for clergy, chancery and parish staff to give updates on re-opening plans. One thing that’s become clear is it will be a new reality in the pews. That could mean reduced congregations with all Mass participants wearing masks, which is one of the Detroit requirements.

“Everything we’ve seen is that people are going to have to wear masks,” said Milway, though he’s quick to add it’s not certain that will be required in the archdiocese’s case.

“We’re trying to prepare our parishes for that in case that’s the way. What we don’t want to happen is out of nowhere the province says you can have Masses of 25 people but you’ve got to do this and we’re not ready,” he said.

The most likely scenario is that parishioners will be required to supply their own masks, though it’s also likely there will be masks on hand for those without.

It’s likely to be a phased opening, with social distancing directives in place and limits likely on the number of people attending Mass.

This leads to a number of considerations, including a reservation system to attend Mass. Other options include holding Masses for families in alphabetical ranges, opening parish halls for overflow, having more Masses and continued live-stream Masses until churches can return to full capacity.

Other measures like mandatory hand sanitizing for people entering churches is a certainty, said Milway, and the archdiocese has begun sourcing materials from suppliers for each of its 225 parishes. An initial supply of four four-litre jugs of hospital-grade liquid sanitizer, eight 525 ml dispensing bottles and 200 washable personal protective face masks for parish staff have been ordered for each parish, which is then responsible for replenishing supplies, said Milway.

Inevitably, it’s going to lead to higher costs for parishes, with the initial supply costing about $675.

“I hope it’s just a temporary reality. It can’t go on like this forever. We’re going to have to cope some way,” he said, but added the archdiocese doesn’t want to be seen as “reckless.”

“It’s doing the right thing and be seen as doing the right thing.”

It’s a challenging, strange time and it’s been a fluid situation since day one, said MacCarthy.

“And it will likely feel strange when we come to church and the experience is very different physically in how we can do that,” he said. “Yet it’s necessary right now. We have a responsibility to care for our neighbour and do all that we can to minimize any potential spread of COVID-19.”

It’s likely a completed plan will be in place shortly, but safety is the key, said Milway. “We’re making it up as we go. We’re trying to use our common sense, we’re trying to read the tea leaves from the province and trying to learn from what other dioceses are experiencing,” he said.

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