Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth issued a pastoral letter March 18 detailing directives for the celebration of Mass during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Those directives include a plan for the distribution of the Eucharist after Masses conclude.
While all Masses are to be celebrated without a congregation present, Olson urged the continued distribution of Holy Communion “outside of church in designated spaces after Mass for those who are present in their cars or separated by a safe distance.”
“After consultation with my priests and civic officials at local and state levels, and in cooperating with them for the good of society, I am informing you that Mass will continue to be celebrated at the scheduled times throughout the territory of the Diocese of Fort Worth, but without a congregation physically present in the church,” Olson wrote Wednesday.
Holy Communion, he continued, “is to be distributed in an open space with safe social distancing, in the hand, and not through a car window.”
In Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is located, civil authorities have urged the cancellation of gatherings of more than 250 people.
The Fort Worth area has two confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of March 18. The number of confirmed cases worldwide stands at 200,000.
Olson told CNA in an interview that each pastor in the diocese will be responsible for devising how to distribute Holy Communion in his parish.
“There would be a designated place that is open-air, and then people would not be crowding around in a line, but people would come out, receive the Eucharist in a designated spot, make their reverence, and then move forward, and go and make their thanksgiving accordingly in a safe place,” the bishop told CNA.
“I’m leaving my pastors, having consulted with them and talked with them, to devise how that will be done.”
More than 100 dioceses throughout the United States have suspended public Masses entirely amid recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging the cancelation of gatherings of ten or more people and the practicing of social distancing, i.e. remaining at least six feet from other people.
Fort Worth’s directives seem to be unique in their provision for the distribution of the Eucharist after Masses.
Olson told CNA that “spiritual needs are often not seen as essential to the human person,” but that his plan for continuing the distribution of the Eucharist in his diocese is a means of “care of soul and body.”
“This is very much a moving target, and we have used a system of gradualism to cooperate [with secular authorities],” Olson said.
“But the work of the Church has to go on, and that includes the celebration of Mass. Other dioceses are having the celebration of Mass, albeit privately, so the Mass is going on. We’re just connecting this, as well, to the reception of Holy Communion…This is in no way an act of defiance. It’s an act of solidarity.”
Olson’s pastoral letter said that priests and deacons over the age of 60 ought not distribute Communion, and stressed that “the circumstances current in our community are such that attendance at Mass borders on an impossibility and thus there is no obligation to attend.”
Olson has asked that priests celebrate Mass in their churches at the scheduled times and for the published intention, assisted by a deacon or a server or acolyte.
If inclement weather prohibits the distribution of Communion outdoors, he said, “Holy Communion may be distributed in the church with safe social distancing and without crowding with due respect for the limits on gathering size.”
The directives are set to go into effect March 19. The diocese is working with local authorities to assess whether to proceed with weddings and funerals in the coming weeks, Olson said.
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