Multi-phase plan for reopening churches announced by bishops of Illinois

Signs such as this one at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Peoria have been posted on church doors across the Diocese of Peoria for two months because of coronavirus pandemic restrictions. On May 13, the bishops of Illinois released a multi-phased plan for reopening churches. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

UPDATED May 20

Consulting with state and local public health officials and civil authorities, including the Office of the Governor, the Catholic bishops of Illinois have developed a plan for reopening churches and resuming public worship. Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, released an executive summary of the multi-phase plan on May 13.

Phase I allows for parishes to reopen for baptisms, reconciliation, weddings and funerals with a limit of 10 persons in attendance. Phase IA allows for parishes to reopen for private prayer and adoration, again with a limit of 10 persons.

The plan notes that if parishes take the necessary steps, they could begin Phase I as early as May 23, and Phase IA by May 30.

Reopening churches for weekday and weekend Masses for larger groups would come in Phase II and depend on state guidelines for managing the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things.

In the interim, Bishop Jenky said May 12 that priests of the Diocese of Peoria are permitted to give Communion to the faithful. While each pastor will determine how that happens in his parish, the distribution must take place outside of church and with great caution to protect all concerned, according to Msgr. Philip Halfacre, vicar general.

Parishes around central Illinois wasted no time, with many priests offering Communion to grateful parishioners on May 13, the first day they could do so.

In a May 15 letter to the priests, Msgr. Halfacre said parishes were also free to conduct Mass outdoors. Those who attend must stay in their cars and wait for Communion to be brought to them, either at the usual time or after Mass.

The first of these Masses was celebrated on Sunday, May 17.

These are options, however, as the obligation to attend Mass still does not apply.

SAFETY IS KEY

Public celebrations of the Mass were suspended March 14 in the Diocese of Peoria. Bishop Jenky extended that until Easter, April 12, and then indefinitely as Gov. JB Pritzker issued executive orders for people to shelter in place.

The current order has people staying at home until May 30.

A process of training and certification is required for churches to reopen and will be implemented by each diocese, according to the Illinois bishops.  Until this has been completed, priests will continue to offer Mass in private and livestream or broadcast Mass as they’re able.

This is necessary for public safety, Bishop Jenky said.

“We must be honest. We expect this situation to continue for some weeks,” he said, referring to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Any plan for reopening our churches for public worship must include every precaution to ensure public gatherings do not create a second wave of contagion, thus squandering the gains made through our sacrifice in these days.”

The full text of Bishop Jenky’s letter, the executive summary, and the multi-phased plan for reopening churches is found on the home page of the Diocese of Peoria website, cdop.org.

TRAINING HAS BEGUN

The plan developed by the bishops calls for parishes to recruit a team of volunteers who are not considered “vulnerable” to assist the pastor in putting together and implementing a “template” for reopening. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify those who are 65 and older and/or those with serious underlying medical conditions as being at high risk for COVID-19.

Members of the Parish Reopening Leadership Team must complete a one-hour webinar, developed and hosted by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Those began May 18 and a recorded version is available. Spanish and Polish translations will be posted at a later date.

To prepare for Phase II, resumption of public Masses, parishes will be asked to expand their team, and recruit and train new, “non-vulnerable” volunteers as needed. A detailed proposal, including provisions for “a safe and secure attendance reservation/ticketing system to maintain order and facilitate possible contact tracing of infection,” is also required.

Ongoing discussion, evaluation and training is expected at all stages.

REVERENCE FOR LIFE

Acknowledging that there have been times in history when governments and rulers have persecuted Christians and banned public worship, Bishop Jenky said this is not one of them.

“Rather, the present restrictions come in response to an extreme medical emergency as local, state and federal authorities — specifically public health officials — legitimately fulfill their responsibilities to safeguard human life and the common good,” he wrote in his May 13 letter.

“I call on the Catholic faithful, both as good citizens and as advocates for justice and charity, to comply with these regulations,” Bishop Jenky said, noting that we should also be motivated by our reverence for life and human dignity.

“This is, at its heart, a moment to proclaim the breadth and depth of what it means to be pro-life, particularly as this virus preys on the most vulnerable in our midst,” he said.

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