As the oldest of Christian churches, the Catholic Church and the parishes of the Diocese of Orange aren’t going anywhere. And for the Catholics who have wondered when they will have the chance to worship together, there is an answer.
The diocese on May 22 announced that as part of a cautious phased-in approach, church doors will begin to reopen to small groups of healthy parishioners for vigils Saturday, June 13, with Mass celebrated on Sunday, June 14 to commemorate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.
When the doors will fully open will depend on ongoing safety and health evaluation.
Ever since Bishop Kevin Vann announced the suspension of Sunday services on March 17, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and two days ahead of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive stay-at-home order, diocese events have been either postponed or outright canceled.
Three months after the initial closure, church-goers can start coming back, but must adhere to public safety standards that will restrict the number of congregants.
Bishop Vann has also extended dispensation from obligations to attend Masses and Holy Days of Obligation indefinitely.
Bishop Freyer said until a consensus is reached among church officials and medical professionals, the safety of the congregation is the church’s priority.
“What we’re using as a basis (to decide) is what medical professionals are telling us,” Bishop Freyer said. “Not to do that doesn’t make common sense.”
The state government had warned that large gatherings may not be allowed until late in the year, but have since been walking-back many predictions.
Bishop Freyer said a small group of people had urged the church to open its doors early in violation of state and county government guidelines.
“It’s not about the government,” Bishop Freyer said. “It’s about medical advice and acting for the common good.”
More common among the feedback from parishioners were those who are “grateful we’re keeping people safe. Many seniors feel pressure to attend services. They say this eases the pressure, otherwise they say they’d feel guilty.”
Safety remains paramount in reopening.
Currently three phases are envisioned, with the first allowing small groups of healthy Catholics to attend limited Mass. Phase two will allow larger groups, and then finally choirs will return and social gatherings will be allowed.
The diocese encourages those over the age 65 or with health concerns to consider not attending just yet, and that all congregants exhibiting symptoms stay home.
“Parishioners will wear masks and practice social distancing,” Bishop Freyer said, referring to the six-foot distance between attendees.
Certain modifications and allowances may be made for areas where families or couples can worship in closer proximity.
It is up to individual parishes to decide seating layouts and how they will limit access. Bishop Freyer said those expecting large crowds may consider offering on-line tickets to Masses and live-streaming or holding Masses for overflow crowds in church halls and gymnasiums or outdoors.
Existing live-streaming of Masses will continue.
Communion will be offered, but those in line must maintain the six-foot distance, and “the blood of Christ will not be available,” Bishop Freyer said.
Modifications will also be made to collection of offerings, use of restrooms and Masses will likely be shortened.
To reduce crowding, the diocese encourages congregants to attend Mass on days throughout the week, rather than on Sunday.
The churches will be cleaned and disinfected between each service with hand-sanitizing stations at entrances and exits that congregants are encouraged to use.
For a number of measures and procedures, the Diocese has been using information and guidelines provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (available at bit.ly/3gu1QWo) for consideration, as well as sharing ideas with other California bishops, although those have not been formalized.
The tentative document on reopening deals with a wide array of issues ranging from testing of priests to choir arrangements.
Church officials say when churches reopen they expect a surge of interest from congregants seeking confessions, confirmations, particularly those who missed out during the Easter season and to reschedule weddings and funeral services.
Those will be sorted out by the various parishes and extra clergy may be assigned to assist.
“The first step should be a return to the celebration of Sunday Masses and other sacraments such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals,” according to guidelines.
Bishop Freyer said the existing safety measures could be the “new normal” for some time.
“I don’t think we’ll be back to normal until a vaccine is developed or enough people have built up antibodies,” he said.
Bishop Freyer expects there to be an overwhelming sense of relief with doors reopening.
“I would think there will be gratitude for us to be back together. Gratitude to God for bringing up through this. Gratitude for the healthcare workers. Gratitude for the restored health of those who were sick. And a celebration that we’re one step closer to normal.”