As we near the end of the Easter season, we are beginning to see the light of hope shine on us as regional plans are implemented to gradually lift the restrictions that were put in place to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, COVID-19. I want to let you know that decisions about lifting restrictions in the Diocese of Greensburg are also being made. I would like to thank all of you who showed patience, and who continue to show patience, during this unusual time. Thank you, most especially, for caring for your vulnerable and elderly neighbors and for doing everything possible to protect them by your social distancing. Our sacrifices were a great act of charity toward our neighbors. I also want to thank our health care professionals and all those who continued to work to provide for our needs at this time. Thank you and know that you continue to be in our prayers as well. And I thank our clergy and church personnel who continued to perform their ministry and work despite many challenges. People were anointed, confessions were heard, the dead were buried, the sick were anointed, Masses were offered privately, Catholic schools and parish religious education programs continued online, Catholic Charities served the poor, and secretaries continued to respond to calls and emails. The Church was never closed, even if our parish buildings and churches were. And I want to thank everyone who was able to continue supporting the mission of the Church in these unprecedented and confusing times.
The decision to suspend public Masses and close our church buildings was done with wide consultation of clergy, lay leaders and health care leaders, and with an exceptional amount of personal pain. We did our part not to overwhelm our hospital systems. We worked to flatten the curve. And we trusted that God would see us through. He has. And we are now ready to move forward with the ongoing help of God.
Recently, I established a Committee for Recommencing In-Person Worship and Operations. This group of clergy and lay leaders was tasked with determining guidelines and a timeline for re-opening our church buildings for prayer and worship. Their workload has been enormous. I asked them to help me make some very difficult decisions. But the plan that this committee developed will enable us to return to our churches safely.
Recommencing in-person prayer and worship will happen in waves and will be done with continuous consultation from state and regional health care leaders.
In our first wave, implemented shortly after the “yellow” designation of all four counties in the Diocese of Greensburg, we permit our church buildings to open for private prayer on a schedule that is determined by each parish. I have set parameters that each parish must meet with regard to cleaning and sanitization. But I also call on the faithful to help us make this return to our church buildings a safe return. There will be signs posted in every parish reminding visitors that they must wear masks to protect others who are inside, and all people inside our churches must also adhere to social distancing requirements, sitting 6 feet away from others, unless they are members of the same household.
The mask and social distancing mandates must also be followed during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. During the stay-at-home order, our priests heard confessions by appointment only. In wave one, we are asking our priests to find alternate locations including social halls or other parts of the church, or even hold them outdoors, because confessionals do not meet safety requirements. They will then be permitted to hear confessions at posted times in these safe spaces.
These are examples of the kinds of precautions I am asking our parishioners to take so that our parishes can make a return to their churches that is as safe as possible.
In wave two, we will be able to return to the public celebration of the Holy Mass. However, returning to Mass and other liturgies during this second wave will include notable differences from your past experiences. For instance, people will be seated at least in every other pew and using social distancing guidelines; all communicants will be encouraged to receive the Sacred Host in the hand rather than on the tongue; the cup of the Precious Blood will not be offered to the congregation; the Sign of Peace will no longer include a handshake, instead we will turn to the person next to us and offer a reverential bow; holy water and baptismal fonts will be drained. We might find that other practices need to be altered as well as we learn to live in this “new normal” for the time being. Our clergy, my staff and I will do everything we can to help you understand these changes and remind you that we must always proceed with caution, empathy, understanding and faith.
For the foreseeable future, all people will remain dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays. I ask that you make your own prudent and informed decision on whether to attend Sunday Mass or not, after taking your own situation into account. You should especially use this dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass at this time if you are elderly or have a medical condition that puts you at greater risk for serious complications from this disease. Consider, also, whether you come into routine contact with others who are at increased risk. You do not need to risk passing this disease on to someone you know is vulnerable. Know that you can still stay connected with your faith at home by watching streamed liturgies, using daily devotions such as the rosary, and praying in any manner that lifts your heart and mind to God. You may also decide to attend a weekday Mass in place of a Sunday Mass, which normally gets a larger crowd.
I realize, especially now, that even the worst situations and events have some positive impact. God can pull light out of darkness. Let me tell you this piece of information that gives me great hope. Last year, on an average weekend, 78 parishes in the Diocese of Greensburg welcomed 34,000 parishioners. In just one week during the stay-at-home order, more than 100,000 people tuned in to watch virtual Masses across the Diocese of Greensburg. This included Catholics who routinely visit our churches as well as Catholics who have been away from the practice of their faith for a long time. It also included people who never witnessed a Catholic Mass before and have since become interested in the teachings and practices of our beloved Church. I heard heartwarming stories of families gathered with their children, watching Mass together, and then discussing how important that faith was for each of them afterward. Many stories of faith lifted my heart during this time of distancing. During this weeks-long Sabbath, the Lord allowed us to draw closer together as families and deepen our commitment to Jesus as his followers.
While virtual liturgies can never be a replacement for in-person worship, they have been a way to keep us connected to our faith and evangelize others with the saving truth of the Gospel. God blesses us even during times of hardship!
I understand that many of you want to be among the first to know about additional waves for in-person worship in the Diocese of Greensburg, and so I urge you to stay connected in these ways: Visit TheAccentOnline.org regularly to read the latest news, check the diocese website or sign up for text alerts by texting the word FAITH to the number 724-305-3057.
I promise to continue to communicate with you regularly and to continue to
serve the diocese as a humble shepherd close to his flock.
I have said it before. I will say it again. I am blessed to be the Bishop of our Diocese. Thank you for your support and your prayers.
May God bless you and those you love.
Committee for Recommencing In-Person Worship and Operations
Monsignor Larry J. Kulick
Father Daniel J. Ulishney
Father Michael J. Crookston
Father Ronald Maquiñana
Father Alan N. Polczynski
Father Michael P. Sikon
Father John A. Moineau
Father Tyler J. Bandura
Dr. Jacob DiCesare