I know a lot of Catholics are upset they cannot attend the Holy Mass and/or receive the Eucharist. I share that sentiment. And it breaks my heart everyday that I cannot offer the Mass with the faithful, as I wrote just a few days ago.
Presently some friends are endeavoring to encourage priests to violate the Governor's Executive Order limiting gatherings to more than ten people. To this notion, I remind them of Saint Paul's admonition: "Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God" (Romans 13:1). Priests, particularly, in this situation are subordinate on the one hand to the civil authority and, on the other, to the authority of their Bishops, most of whom have suspended the public celebration of the Holy Mass.
Those who want their priests to publicly celebrate the Holy Mass say we can do so while keeping the social distance (which we do know helps stop the spread of the coronavirus), but is this actually true? Join me, if you will, for a little thought experiment.
For the sake of argument
Let us presume two very unlikely scenarios in this thought experiment:
- That the Governor will reinstate the previous limit on gatherings consisting of more than 50 people (we are currently at 10); and,
- That the Governor will include religious worship among the list of tolerated essential duties.
Given these two presumptions, is it possible to resume the public celebration of the Holy Mass while maintaining the required social distance?
Presently, I am Pastor of two parishes: St. Augustine in Ashland and St. Peter in Petersburg. Since I reside in the rectory in Ashland, we will use St. Augustine church in this thought experiment.
Gatherings of not more than 10 people
Before we consider larger gatherings, let us presume the Governor includes religious services among the essential tasks, but keeps the gathering size to not more than 10 people.
Given this, nine parishioners could join me at the Holy Mass, but who gets to decide who gets to attend and how often? Do you do it by lottery? On a first come, first serve basis? Alphabetically? Or some other basis? Frankly, I hope not to be put in such a position because the avoidance of the appearance of favoritism would be very difficult.
Gatherings of not more than 50 people
St. Augustine's has just one Mass each Sunday (the Church's ideal) with an average attendance weekly attendance between 85 and 100 people.
Because we cannot reasonably plan for fewer people to return to Mass and should account for an increase in attendance (we have seen people popping into the church for private prayer whom we do not recognize), let us presume a congregation of 110 people keeping 6 feet apart from each other.
Given the length of the pews and the distance between the pews, I could put 3 people in every fourth pew, for a total of 30 in the pews. I could additionally put 2 put in the sanctuary, 2 people in the choir loft, and 3 people in the vestibule (provided no one uses the restroom, which is unlikely). That makes a total of 37 people per Mass and at least 3 Masses per weekend, just at St. Augustine's.
St. Peter's has two Masses per weekend and has an average attendance between 170 and 190 people per weekend. At best, I think I might be able to squeeze 60 into that church while maintaining the social distance, which means at least another 3 Masses per weekend, just at St. Peter's.
Given these assumptions, that would mean that I would have to celebrate at least 6 Masses per weekend, which is forbidden by canon 905 § 2, which states: "If there is a shortage of priests, the local ordinary ca allow priests to celebrate twice a day for a just cause, or if pastoral necessity requires it, even three times on Sundays and holy days of obligation." Given the current law, celebrating 6 Masses each week is simply not an option.
Others have suggested outdoor Masses at which people drive their cars, park the cars six feet apart, and remain inside the cars during the Mass. This poses considerable logistical considerations (how many parishes are able to broadcast on a radio frequency to be picked up in cars or loudspeaker system capable of sufficient volume without becoming a noise nuisance?).
Other considerations in such a situation are even more practical in nature. For example, St. Augustine's does not have a parking lot; parishioners park on the side of the streets adjacent to the church, so an outdoor Mass would not work for us.
Given all of this, as long as we are required to keep to social distancing, I do not see how it is possible to resume the public celebration of the Holy Mass within our churches; our churches are big enough and we do not have enough priests.
Until such time as an arrangement can be found, I ask you to be patient and steadfast in prayer. It breaks your priests' hearts as much as it breaks yours that we cannot administer the Eucharist to you. We miss you. We love you. We pray for you daily. And we long for the day we can gather with you again at the altar of the Lord.