I’ve read a lot of statements and letters from bishops and their press offices over the last 24 hours or so about the coronavirus pandemic.
But this one strikes me as exceptional.
It comes from Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City.
More than just announcing what you can or cannot do, the tone is sensible, nuanced, pastoral, and beautifully compassionate toward the people battling this virus and the clergy and lay ministers seeking to serve them. As he notes: “Our mission as Church continues, even as we alter our activities for the sake of the common good.”
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
As the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic grows, I ask the people of the Diocese of Jefferson City to join me in praying for those who are ill, their loved ones, the healthcare professionals and all who are working tirelessly to mitigate the terrible suffering caused by the coronavirus. Our mission as Church continues, even as we alter our normal activities for the sake of the common good.
We are continuing to listen to public health officials who are asking for assistance in slowing down the virus’s spread. They have informed us that those over the age of 60 are more at risk, while younger people are generally not impacted unless they have an underlying health issue.
Therefore, I am dispensing Catholics age 60 or older in the Diocese of Jefferson City from the obligation of Sunday Mass until further notice. This is in addition to those already dispensed due to illness or a compromised immune system. For those unable to attend Mass, please participate virtually in the Mass at your local parish through social media and the internet, if possible. Spending a similar amount of time reading the Sunday Scriptures (found at www.usccb.org) and praying the Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet would be laudable.
As of today, we have issued new liturgical protocols for our parishes.
Many of our priests are of the age range most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Priests over the age of 60 are requested to practice social distancing (at least six feet from others) during their celebration of Mass, which means they should not be greeting people before and after Mass; they should observe appropriate spacing in processions and when seated; and they should not distribute Holy Communion to the assembly. Ordinary and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion who are under age 60 should be utilized for the distribution of Communion to the faithful.
Our school principals have received communication from our superintendent of schools regarding how our school families, and schools, should evaluate travel and the possibility of school closures.
While our diocese has not seen the number of confirmed cases as have been reported elsewhere, we should be planning how we can be a witness of God’s love during this terrible crisis. I ask our pastors and parish leadership to consider practical ways their parish can support those who are most impacted by any crisis: the lonely, the poor and the forgotten.
Parishes may wish to begin collecting information from people who are isolated and would appreciate someone checking in on them, or perhaps offering them support if they become ill. Healthcare professionals may appreciate knowing there is a community supporting them if they are called to extensive shifts or become ill themselves, and therefore are not able to take care of their families. Many hourly-wage earners are losing their incomes as major sporting events and entertainment venues close. Catholics may want to increase their support of Catholic Charities and other agencies which will be called upon to provide basic necessities for these workers and their families.
Our diocesan staff is offering a process for parishes to establish these teams of charity and mercy.
Some parishes may determine to cancel or postpone nonessential gatherings. This decision should be made at the parish level. If the canceled or postponed event was intended to raise money for a ministry or service, please consider offering people an alternative means to contribute to the ministry or service.
When the transmission of COVID-19 becomes widespread and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services declares “community transmission” as taking place in our area, the public celebration of Mass will cease until further notice. We are providing more detailed instructions to our parishes regarding the celebrations of weddings, funerals and baptisms if this happens, but in general please note that attendance at these celebrations will be limited.
The most reliable source of information for all of us is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their website is http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/. You may also find more information on how our diocese is working together at diojeffcity.org/public-health.
Many people’s lives are being disrupted by the coronavirus and our attempts to stop its rapid spread. In this season of Lent, let us increase our prayers, fasting and almsgiving, so that God’s great compassion and love may be a source of hope and consolation for all.
Sincerely in Christ,
Most Rev. W. Shawn McKnight
Bishop of Jefferson City