‘We can worship in a way that reflects both the love of God and the love of our neighbors.’
The Catholic Church in Minnesota and some Lutheran ones said Wednesday they will resume worship services on May 26 in defiance of an executive order issued by Gov. Tim Walz in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak limiting religious services at 10 people.
The Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent separate letters to Walz announcing they would resume worship services next week. To date, the novel coronavirus has resulted in the death of 777 Minnesotans.
The move comes after “weeks of dialogue” with the governor, the churches said in a news release. Services will resume for congregations at 33% capacity next Tuesday with Pentecost on the following Sunday. The churches say they have committed to “instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”
A spokesman for Walz was not immediately available for comment.
In addition, a group called the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a “legal letter” claiming the continued closure of churches violates the First Amendment.
On May 13, Walz issued an executive order permitting malls and some retailers to open at 50% capacity, and on Wednesday the governor announced a phased-in plan to permit bars, restaurants, salons and barbershops to reopen June 1 at reduced capacity. However, the ban remains on in-person worship services for more than 10 people.
“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda said in a statement. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”
From the statement of the bishops of Minnesota:
The bishops of Minnesota are united in our conviction that we can safely resume public Masses in accordance with both our religious duties and with accepted public health and safety standards. We can worship in a way that reflects both the love of God and the love of our neighbors (cf. Mark 12:30-31). Therefore, we are giving our parishes permission for the resumption of the public celebration of Mass on Tuesday, May 26, which will give us time to be ready for the celebration of Pentecost on May 31. Parishes will be required to follow the strict protocols we have published for sanitation and social distancing and will have to limit attendance to one-third of the seating capacity of the church. No one will be obliged to attend, as the bishops of Minnesota will continue to dispense from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.
We share the Governor’s concern about the importance of taking all reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We have charged our parishes with the task of preparing for a limited return to public Mass, but we are not requiring them to begin public Mass on May 26. Each parish community needs to be comfortable that it can meet the standards set forth in extensive and stringent diocesan protocols. We already know that many will be unable to do that immediately because of the configuration of their churches or because of a shortage of staff or supplies. They need a plan for how they would limit admittance to one-third of the seating capacity of their church, and how they will seat those who arrive. We also recognize that some parishes may choose, for now, to adhere to the existing ten-person limit. We trust local leadership will determine when they are able to follow all the directives and open, and we stand ready to assist them when necessary.
We also know that parishes may have to adjust to changing circumstances, recognizing that we do not know how the pandemic will affect us in the weeks and months ahead. A parish that begins public Mass on Pentecost, for example, may have to impose further restrictions later in the year, in the event of an outbreak in the local community.
We have made it clear that the obligation of a Catholic to attend Sunday Mass remains suspended and we have uniformly encouraged those most at risk to stay home. Not surprisingly, dioceses in other states that have already reopened their churches for public Masses report that the number of those attending is significantly reduced. We ask our parishes to continue to provide ministry by live streaming even when public Masses resume. We find it reasonable, moreover, that parishes would continue to look for opportunities for outdoor celebrations.
In moving forward with public worship in this limited manner, we wish to provide more explanation for our decision. First, the six dioceses of Minnesota voluntarily suspended parish activities, Catholic schools, and the public celebration of Mass, and did so before any executive orders were put in place. We have followed public health guidance and Governor Walz’s leadership so that we, as a state, could 1) flatten the curve, 2) allow time for the necessary health care infrastructure to be created to handle a surge of patients and avoid unnecessary deaths, and 3) allow a testing regime to be put in place to limit spread of COVID-19. We have done so because we care for our neighbors and it is important for us to be in solidarity with our vulnerable sisters and brothers. We have also done so out of respect for rightful authority—another biblical principle (cf. Romans 13).
Second, we have attempted to engage in dialogue with the Administration. We have twice sent the Governor letters asking for a dialogue, most recently last Saturday. Though public health and public safety officials have listened to our concerns and have created opportunities for input and conversation, we have not received a concrete timeline and roadmap for resuming public worship that includes reasonable guidance on congregational size.
Third, we believe we have been leading by example. Our people and institutions have enthusiastically cooperated with the public health guidance and have been part of the solution at every turn: providing relief to struggling families, finding creative ways to minister to a suffering people, serving on the front lines of the health care crisis, and leaping forward in technology to meet the demand for spiritual comfort created by this pandemic.
Read the full statement.