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Archdiocese of Washington issues guidelines offering roadmap for parishes to plan for resuming public Masses

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory on May 15 spoke in a video message for Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, discussing plans for the eventual resumption of public Masses at local churches. The screen capture shows closed captioning of part of his remarks.  (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

While the restriction on not holding public Masses is still in effect in the Archdiocese of Washington in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the archdiocese on May 15 sent priests a document to assist them, their parishes and other Catholic communities in planning for the resumption of public Masses indoors in churches, chapels or other parish facilities.

The document on Public Celebration of Mass and Holy Communion Outside of Mass was dated May 14, 2020 and noted, “These guidelines cover only the beginning phases of a long process which we hope will lead to the full resumption of the liturgical life of our Church. Given the particular situations in different parishes, pastors should use discretion in the application of these guidelines.”

In a May 15 letter to priests, Father Daniel Carson, the Archdiocese of Washington's vicar general and moderator of the Curia, said public Masses may resume starting Monday May 25, in local jurisdictions that have lifted restrictions.

The guidelines for parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington - which includes the District of Columbia and the five surrounding Maryland counties of St. Mary's, Charles, Calvert, Prince George's and Montgomery - came on a week when local government leaders issued updates on their coronavirus restrictions.

On May 13, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the District's Stay at Home Order and Public Health Emergency through June 8. That order prohibits “large gatherings of more than 10 individuals not of the same household.”

Also on May 13, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that beginning at 5 p.m. on May 15, his “Stay at Home” order would transition to a “Safer at Home” public health advisory and the gradual re-openings of retail, manufacturing, houses of worship, and some personal services. 

Gov. Hogan’s order allowed county leaders to make decisions regarding the timing of reopenings in their jurisdictions, and on May 14, leaders in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties – which have been hard-hit by the coronavirus -- announced that COVID-19 restrictions in their counties, including stay-at-home orders and limits on the size of public gatherings, would remain in effect. 

The Calvert County Board of County Commissioners voted May 14 to extend the declaration of a state of emergency in the county for an additional 30 days. On May 14, the Charles County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to institute phase one of Gov. Hogan’s reopening order beginning May 29, while keeping a stay-at-home order in effect in Charles County until that time. Also on May 14, the St. Mary’s County government announced that the county would be taking “parallel actions” following Gov. Hogan’s “Safer at Home” public health advisory, including “the gradual reopening of retail, manufacturing, houses of worship and some personal services.”

In a video message to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington issued on May 15, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory noted that since the archdiocese includes territory in multiple jurisdictions, “our re-opening will have to reflect the various limitations that those jurisdictions impose on public assemblies. In this local Church - in the midst of changing conditions – our archdiocesan team is working to finalize plans for when and how we will be able to resume public liturgies in an orderly and safe manner. Please follow the updates issued by your pastor for information pertaining to your particular parish.”

In his video message, Archbishop Gregory emphasized, “Still, it is important to understand that things will not immediately ‘go back to normal.’ Precautionary measures will need to be in place for the health and safety of everyone. And at least in some respects, we should not want to simply go back to the way things used to be.” 

In a March 12 statement from the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Gregory had announced that in response to public health recommendations from local government leaders regarding the potential spread of coronavirus, Masses open to the public in all archdiocesan parishes, missions and campus ministries would not be celebrated until further notice, starting Saturday March 14. He said weddings and funerals could proceed but should be limited to immediate family.

Archbishop Gregory also issued a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass during this time to all parishioners of the Archdiocese of Washington, and since then, most parishes have been livestreaming or recording Masses.

Following public safety directives made by Maryland and D.C. public officials, Archbishop Gregory had announced that all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington would be closed starting March 16, and the schools began offering distance learning for students so they could continue their learning at home. Following policies enacted by Maryland and District of Columbia leaders, the Archdiocese of Washington announced on May 8 that it was extending closures of its Catholic school campuses in those jurisdictions for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. 

In the wake of the coronavirus restrictions, public Catholic Masses were suspended and Catholic school campuses were closed across the United States.

In his May 15 video message, Archbishop Gregory added on a personal note that he and his brother priests missed celebrating Mass with their people, and he said they continued to pray for them at Mass, and for all those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those who had become sick or died from the virus, and for their families and the healthcare providers on the front lines serving coronavirus patients.

“In these past months, in the face of the coronavirus health emergency, we have experienced challenges and hardships unlike any we have ever faced as a nation, a people, or a Church,” Archbishop Gregory said in the video message. “Our best and smartest first response – as in all things – is to turn to the Lord who comforts us and strengthens us. Our Lord walks with us and guides our way forward.”

Father Daniel Carson, the archdiocese’s vicar general and moderator of the Curia, has served with other religious leaders on Gov. Hogan’s Faith-Based Workgroup offering recommendations on reopening public worship in Maryland.

In a May 14 letter to priests in the archdiocese, Father Carson wrote, “The restriction on not holding public Masses is still in place until further notice. We continue to put plans and resources together for when we can resume public Masses and to do so in an orderly, safe and well-communicated manner.”

On May 15, Father Carson wrote another letter to the priests with links to the archdiocese’s guidelines for Public Celebration of Mass and Holy Communion Outside of Mass, a link to the archbishop’s video message, and a link to a one-page flyer titled, “What to Expect When Public Masses Start to Resume,” that included key things for local Catholics to keep in mind as the reopening of churches begins, including that social distancing will still be in place, that attendance and church seating at Masses will be limited, and that liturgical changes will remain in effect, including “distribution of Holy Communion under one species, no exchange of the sign of peace, no holy water fonts, etc.”

Also in that letter, Father Carson noted, “Public Masses may resume starting Monday, May 25 within the Archdiocese of Washington in local jurisdictions that have lifted restrictions. For remaining jurisdictions that still have stay at home restrictions in place on May 25, resuming public Masses will wait until the restrictions are lifted.”

Father Carson added, “Planning for how many parishioners can attend a given service will depend on the current guidance from your local jurisdiction and the size of your worship space. For the District of Columbia, there is no guidance at this time for when a Phase I reopening will occur and the capacity that will be allowed. For the State of Maryland, if you are able to resume public Masses on Monday, May 25, the total number of people will be limited to the people being socially distanced within the space. Additionally, the total number of people cannot exceed 50% of the space’s allowed capacity.”

The archdiocese’s correspondence with priests on May 15 also included a link to a letter to them from Archbishop Gregory, who thanked them for all they have done to serve their parishioners in this challenging time. 

Archbishop Gregory’s letter noted, “Before offering Mass publicly, pastors will need to ensure that they can follow the safety directives, which might not be possible for all parishes at the beginning of our reopening. Moreover, these guidelines depend heavily on parish volunteers and staff, and may require the recruitment of additional ushers and other support volunteers to carry out the needed social spacing and cleaning protocols.”

Archbishop Gregory’s letter also said that “during the initial phase of our reopening, the faithful will continue to be dispensed from their obligation to attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation.” He encouraged priests to continue to livestream Masses for those choosing to remain at home.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s May 15 document to priests offering guidance on planning for the resumption of public Masses encourages parishes to consider forming a task force to help create and implement guidelines for their local circumstances. 

The document says parish plans should address indoor traffic flow to maintain social distancing, devise weekday and Sunday Mass schedules based on current restrictions, have a strategy for scheduling attendance at Mass, plans for disinfecting the worship space after each liturgy, a strategy for training staff and volunteers, and plans for communicating with the parish community.

“Good communication with parishioners is essential, starting before public celebrations resume,” the document notes, adding, “The method of determining attendance (e.g. sign-ups, lottery, etc.), the health and hygiene practices, the procedure for receiving Communion, etc. should be clearly communicated in advance of the first public Mass.”

The document also points out that even as public liturgies eventually resume, parishioners especially at risk of serious complications from the virus, including people over the age of 60 or who have existing heart or lung conditions, diabetes, or are otherwise immuno-compromised, “should be urged to remain home” and not volunteer or serve in liturgical ministries. “Likewise, parishioners who feel sick in any way and those with any form of fever or cough should be urged to refrain from public gatherings, including liturgical celebrations,” the document adds.

The general principles outlined in the document also note, “Liturgical celebrations should balance reverence with brevity… Pastors should also consider the importance of minimizing exposure time and reducing transmission risks while maintaining the solemnity and dignity of the celebration. This includes the minimal use of liturgical ministers and considerations for music.”


In a section on health and hygiene considerations, the document notes, “All liturgical celebrations should observe limitations on gathering sizes and ensure social distancing. Members of the same household may sit together, but there should be at least 6 feet of separation otherwise. Gatherings before and after celebrations are prohibited, including ministers greeting the faithful before and after Mass.” 

The document also says that all members of the congregation and all ministers, except the priest-celebrant “are to wear face coverings at all times while in church… The priest-celebrant is permitted to wear a face covering during Mass but not required to, except during the distribution of Communion.”

Other health and hygiene guidelines in that section include “all members of the assembly and all ministers are to sanitize their hands upon entering the church,” with hand sanitizer provided by the parish or brought by the Mass-goers. That section also notes, “Pews and other surfaces in the church are to be regularly and thoroughly disinfected,” and indoor air ventilation and circulation should be maximized, and doors propped open as much as possible, to minimize contact with door handles or push bars.


In a section on guidelines for planning, the document encourages pastors to use an online platform to allow parishioners to sign up to attend Masses, or assign Masses according to last names or some other system, clearly communicating that to parishioners, while also developing plans for situations in which more people are seeking to attend a Mass than can be permitted under the limitations on sizes of public gatherings.

That section also recommends allowing enough time between planned Masses for sanitizing surfaces and for worship aids to be disposed of and replaced. Consideration may also be given to the use of other available venues for Masses, like the parish hall, where surfaces might be sanitized.

“Minimizing the risk of community spread in our churches is essential to keeping people safe and in keeping our churches open for the celebration of public Mass,” that section notes.

The document also says that parishioners should be informed well in advance on special measures that will be taken during Mass, including “the need to wear face coverings in the church and to sanitize their hands upon entering the church, (and) the need to maintain social distancing at all times, including in the pews.”

Parishioners should also be notified about the procedure of taking up the collection and for people to avoid touching the basket, the procedure for receiving Holy Communion, and the procedure for departing the church. The document also encourages people to minimize the use of restrooms.

In a section on preparing ministers assisting at Mass, the document underscores “the strict necessity to maintain public distancing. The document says the use of lay ministers in the sanctuary, like readers, altar servers, sacristans and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion “should be severely curtailed or omitted altogether,” but “exceptions can be made to assist priests who may themselves be vulnerable.” It says the number of ushers should be limited, and they should wear face coverings. 

While musical accompaniment at Mass of one cantor and one organist or pianist is preferred, the document recommends that “the use of choirs should be omitted,” and adds, “consideration my also be given to omitting congregational singing altogether in order to minimize particle spread.”

A section on preparation of the church notes that baptismal and holy water fonts are to remain empty until further notice, and hymnals, missalettes and other worship aides are to be removed from pews. Printed bulletins are not to be distributed, and the document recommends that digital bulletins can be posted on parish websites or sent by email.

Signs in the church can help ensure that social distancing is maintained, but they “should be dignified in appearance,” the document notes, while adding that routes for people approaching to receive Communion and then returning to their pews should be established and clearly marked to help maintain social distancing. 


The document’s section on guidance for the celebration of Mass encourages “petitions for those impacted by the coronavirus and those who cannot be present at the Mass.”

That section notes that “the presentation of gifts by members of the assembly is to be omitted. A collection may be taken up, but baskets are not to be passed and social distancing is to be maintained.” Baskets or other receptacles for the collection may be placed at the entrance of the church.

The guidance states that “all ministers, including the priest celebrant, are to disinfect their hands before preparing the altar and gifts.”

The document says “the practice of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer is strictly prohibited,” and the exchange of the sign of peace is to be omitted until further notice.


In a section on the Communion Rite for when public Masses resume, the document notes that the priest-celebrant must put on a face covering for the distribution of Communion. The document also says, “The distribution of the Precious Blood to the laity is suppressed until further notice unless their celiac disease is so severe; then it is left to pastors to determine how to handle, possibly by consecrating a separate chalice.”

That section also notes that “in order to minimize the number of ministers exposed to individual contact, only ordinary ministers of Communion” (priests and deacons) are to distribute Communion. 

People approaching for Communion should remain six feet from others in line and from the minister. After they receive the host in their hand, they should step six feet away from the minister, carefully loosen their face covering, consume the Host and replace their face covering. Those who will not receive Communion should not come forward with hands crossed for a blessing, and children who will not receive Communion but who are old enough to remain quietly in their pew should do so and not get in the Communion line. 

The document recommends that after the distribution of Communion is complete, all ministers of Communion are to disinfect their hands.

Regarding the final blessing and dismissal, the document says, “Pastors should consider having the congregation dismissed by rows, under the supervision of ushers, to avoid crowding at the exits of the church. Doors should be propped open to avoid unnecessary contact with door handles and push bars.”

The Washington Post reported on May 15 that the United States, now the epicenter for the outbreak of the virus, had more than 86,000 deaths from COVID-19 and 1.433 million diagnosed cases. The Post noted that worldwide, more than 4.5 million people have been infected with the coronavirus, and more than 305,000 have died of the disease worldwide. And the Post reported that as of May 14, there were more than 3,100 COVID-19 deaths and more than 70,000 diagnosed cases in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Founded in 1939, the Archdiocese of Washington is home to more than 655,000 Catholics who worship in 139 parishes located  in Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding Maryland counties. Nearly 27,000 students attend the 93 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington. Catholic Charities of the archdiocese is the largest non-public social service organization in the region, serving nearly 143,000 people each year.

The Archdiocese of Washington has a special web page at offering the latest updates on the situation.