Back to church — Diocese plans reopening

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Our Lady of Mount Carmel Director of Music James Dengler (right) talks with parishioners (from left) Denny and Debbie Elder and Clara Tromm, all of Altoona, outside of the church after private prayer on Thursday afternoon. The church is open for private prayer 9-11 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 3-5 p.m. Saturday and 9-11 a.m. on Sunday. The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has released a plan to resume public services, beginning with confessions on Saturday.

Priests in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown will resume the public celebration of Reconciliation beginning Saturday, according to directives issued this week by Bishop Mark L. Bartchak.

In an effort to reopen churches closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, Bartchak also laid out plans to begin the distribution of Holy Communion on June 1 and celebration of public Masses on the weekend of June 13-14.

As the church transitions to opening public services, Bartchak has asked congregants to be patient while training measures and safety precautions continue to occur.

“We rejoice at the progress being made and we continue to pray for one another in the days ahead,” he said.

Congregants planning to take part in the regular public celebration of the Sacrament of Reconcilation may see some changes in their parish.

To resume the sacrament during the COVID-19 pandemic, some churches may use a parish hall to better accommodate safety measures and make the sacrament more readily available to the people, according to the directives.

Changes in the way confessions are heard can also be expected, as the bishop has asked parishes to use open spaces in a church or set up an area outside in open air. Unless a ready exchange of fresh air is available, Bartchak said confessionals should not be used at this time.

“As our priests begin to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation this weekend, some may have barriers such as plexiglas between them and the penitents, while some may opt for outdoor confessions,” diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said.

“It is going to be different than we are used to, but it is still a sacred opportunity to receive the Lord’s healing and forgiveness,” he said. “We are counting on parishes to communicate instructions and help penitents through the process to the best of their ability. In that same spirit, we ask the faithful for their continued patience and understanding.”

While there will be changes, Bartchak said the secrecy of confession will be carefully observed.

Bartchak also reminded people not to congregate in groups larger than 25, whether inside or outside of a church, and has advised parishes to have ushers or ministers of hospitality available to assist in monitoring the number of people coming for confessions and assist in guiding people.

Other safety measures will be required and vary from church to church depending on specific plans in each parish.

“We do expect many individuals to seek the sacrament in the coming days,” DeGol said. “Most Catholics celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation during Lent — especially during communal Penance services. Those services were canceled due to the pandemic. I suspect a lot of local Catholics are yearning to go to confession again, especially since they did not have the opportunity before Easter.”

To that end, Bartchak is suggesting that parishes cooperate in scheduling times for confessions in order to reach out to as many people as possible.

Priests who need additional help with confessions may seek assistance from neighboring priests, even to the extent of arranging for multiple priests to be available at the same time, Bartchak said.

Bartchak said people may be burdened not only by sin, but emotionally by the challenges that everyone has encountered due to COVID-19. He advised priests to be extra zealous/generous in their time commitment as confessors and solicitous to penitents.

Holy Communion

Looking toward next month and the distribution of Holy Communion on June 1, DeGol said “the faithful are very strongly urged to receive the Eucharist in their hand. Reception on the tongue is strongly discouraged.” DeGol also said the Precious Blood will not be offered until further notice.

According to the directives, Holy Communion is to be distributed during published periods of time to accommodate communicants and should include times in the morning, afternoon and evening. It is to be distributed at the church doors or other locations outside of the church to avoid having more than 25 people gathered inside a church at the same time.

While waiting to receive Holy Communion, everyone must observe physical distancing and use a face covering, and communicants should sanitize their hands before receiving Holy Communion.

While it is recommended communicants receive Holy Communion in the hand, if Holy Communion is received on the tongue or on the hand and inadvertent contact with a person’s face, tongue or hand occurs, the minister must immediately stop and properly disinfect his/her hands before continuing, Bartchak’s directives state.

Public Masses

Public Masses will resume on the weekend of June 13-14 and DeGol said he thinks there is a tremendous desire among parishioners to return to church. While attending Mass during the pandemic is not required, “I think many will,” he said.

“Obviously, we are overjoyed that dates have been announced to resume the public celebration of the sacraments,” DeGol said. “Moving forward, there must be a balance between resuming the sacramental life of the church and continuing to take the necessary safety precautions. Bishop Bartchak has provided overall directives to the priests, but he is trusting each pastor to implement the directives in ways that are safe and responsible, and also in ways that accommodate the unique circumstances of each parish.”

Some parishioners “are still very concerned about venturing out among other people, which is understandable. We especially urge elderly Catholics and others who are vulnerable to the coronavirus to not rush back,” DeGol sad.

“We continue to offer the Mass on TV every Sunday, and the bishop is encouraging parishes to continue live-streaming Masses. Obviously, anyone who is sick should stay home,” DeGol said, noting that Bartchak has waived the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days until further notice.

For those who plan to attend services in person, public Masses will begin June 14, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ — Corpus Christi Sunday.

Bartchak said that due to the coronavirus and logistics involved to keep people safe, people may find parishes holding fewer Sunday Masses than are normally scheduled.

The total number of people allowed inside a church at the same time remains limited to 25.

Parishes are still ironing out the details for services, DeGol said.

“As we look forward to the return of public Masses in mid-June, each parish must develop a plan to ensure that no more than 25 people are in the church at one time. Based on my conversations with various pastors, various options are on the table. Some are considering a lottery system, some are considering sign-ups and some are still looking at options,” he said, noting as detail become firm, each parish will communicate the plan to parishioners.

All hymnals, misalettes and other printed materials have been removed from the pews, and instead, parishes may prepare a song sheet or other worship aid that then will be discarded after each Mass if not taken home

by parishioners.

While families who reside together will be able to sit together, social distancing will be required among parishioners.

In addition, congregants will find that a bowl with soap and water and hand sanitizer will be available at a side table in the sanctuary to be used at any time circumstances require.


The directives also mention that monetary offerings must be arranged so that no baskets are extended to the people by ushers or by passing the baskets by the people.

DeGol said that despite churches being closed, “local Catholics have been extremely generous in continuing their weekly offertory. … We are grateful, and we encourage people to consider electronic giving through their parish website or through the diocesan website.”

DeGol said there has been a great deal of communication among the bishop and his deans to make a plan to open churches safely.

“Here in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, we have five deaneries, or geographic areas, each led by a dean. The deans have been a marvelous consultative body to the bishop, and he greatly values their experience and collaboration,” DeGol said. “Various Zoom conference calls were also held with clergy in each deanery for further input and discussion.”

“Once again, we ask everyone to understand the circumstances and respect the safety guidelines pastors must follow,” DeGol said, adding more details will be released in the coming weeks.


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