Cardinal Dolan and other Church officials presented an Ascension Thursday overview of a comprehensive plan to reopen the 288 parish churches of the archdiocese.
The plan, called Faith Forward, offers a five-step phasing that will seek to move gradually and safely toward a return to the availability of the sacraments and, ultimately Sunday Mass attendance, with a limited capacity.
The guidelines were outlined during a morning press conference at Our Saviour Church in Manhattan on the May 21 holy day.
Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, the vicar general and moderator of the curia in the archdiocese, spoke about his work leading a task force comprised of priests, primarily pastors, and senior staff members of archdiocesan offices that created the comprehensive guidelines over a six-week period.
Msgr. LaMorte said two driving forces guided the task force members in their discussions.
“The desire of people, including the priests, to get the churches open and for us to return to Mass and the sacraments. Everybody misses them very very much,” he said.
The second priority was that the return to church and the sacraments be accomplished “in a safe, gradual way, following the advice of health officials and observing the guidelines of the elected officials,” Msgr. LaMorte said.
Because the exposure to the coronavirus experienced by Catholics in New York City and nearby suburbs was much greater than in the upper counties of the sprawling archdiocese, “we recognize that not every parish will open at the same time,” Msgr. LaMorte said.
The vicar general noted one constant in all parishes would be that priests would begin to be tested for the virus on a weekly basis. “It’s a great reassurance for the people,” he said.
At the outset of the press conference, Cardinal Dolan noted the “10 difficult weeks” experienced by the archdiocese and its 2.8 million Catholics since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, which forced the closure of churches in the archdiocese other than for private prayer, since the weekend of March 14-15.
One of those joining the cardinal was Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses Brooklyn and Queens, both among the hardest hit of New York City’s boroughs, in the Covid-19 pandemic.
The third borough most severely impacted by the virus is the Bronx, which along with Manhattan and Staten Island is part of the Archdiocese of New York. The archdiocese stretches north and west to include seven other counties—Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, Dutchess and Ulster.
“The Catholic community in New York City…has been constant in its allegiance to the very wise restrictions of our respected health care professionals and our elected officials these 10 difficult weeks and we intend to continue to do so,” Cardinal Dolan said.
“Houses of worship provide essential services for the well being of our people,” the cardinal said. “We hear from them daily. They very much miss Mass and Holy Communion, the sacraments,” including confession, baptisms, confirmation and various other liturgical celebrations.
The cardinal said the archdiocese and its parishes have “a moral imperative to protect the health of our people and the wider community. We have been doing that…and we will continue doing that.”
“We also have a responsibility to care for the hearts and souls of our people.”
The five phases delineated in the guidelines for sacramental celebrations released in “Faith Forward” are as follows:
Phase I—Churches open for private prayer and confessions
Phase II—Celebration of baptisms and marriages, with a limit of 10 attendees
Phase III—Celebration of the Rite of Distributing Holy Communion Outside of Mass
Phase IV—Celebration of daily and Funeral Masses with limited attendance
Phase V—Celebration of Sunday Mass with supervised attendance of approximately 25 percent of the church’s permitted occupancy
The guidelines noted the Vicar General’s Office would release a detailed description of each phase in the coming weeks, in consultation with health and government officials and in consideration of health metrics. Different regions of the archdiocese are expected to begin the process of reopening at different times.
An executive summary of “Faith Forward” cites the eagerness of New York’s Catholic community to resume public worship “in a safe and responsible manner.” It goes on to say that “we are proposing a phased plan which follows the latest guidance from the CDC and which, at the same time, respects our traditions.”
There is also a detailed breakdown on general principles, celebration of Mass and additional sacramental considerations.
The plan includes the following policies and procedures:
Other archdiocesan officials and department directors were present at Our Saviour. They included John Cahill, chancellor of the archdiocese; Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of archdiocesan Catholic
Charities; Scott LaRue, president and CEO of ArchCare; Michael Deegan, superintendent of schools in the archdiocese; Wanda Vasquez, director of Hispanic Ministry; Father Eric Cruz, director of Bronx Catholic Charities; and Joseph Zwilling, director of communications, who offered introductory remarks for the press conference.
Msgr. Sullivan, who also serves as administrator of Our Saviour Church, offered practical examples of how the guidelines would be applied in the church.
He said holy water bowls have been removed, missals and other worship aids would be taken out of the church, and masks would be provided to Mass-goers who are not wearing them when they enter.
Seating in pews was marked to observe social distancing requirements, with some sections reserved for families and other seating for individuals.
He also showed how social distancing could be practiced in the area near the baptismal font, and that the sanctuary was sufficiently large for a small wedding ceremony.
“That gives you an idea of how in one church, we can be safe and we can pray together,” Msgr. Sullivan said.