Let me take a moment to review with you where we stand as a parish. I get questions all the time from people who are trying to figure out when we can have Mass, each of whom have seen something or heard something or read something, all of which gives them hope or frustration.
Yesterday (Monday) about this time, Archbishop Gregory transmitted to the priests of the Archdiocese a letter informing us that he was starting today (Tuesday, June 9) permitting public Mass to be celebrated, with the restriction that not more than ten persons may be present, including clergy.
After the initial interest that raised, it became clear that this is precisely the situation under which we have been laboring since March, as we went into “Safer at home,” then “Stay at home” protocols mandated by the Governor of Maryland. The Archbishop suspended public Masses starting March 14, as gatherings were limited to a number by the Governor. First it was 250 (remember that?), then it went to ten. It was clear that genuinely public Mass was not possible under those restrictions.
We had Mass during that time. Each priest in the rectory offered a Mass daily, but behind locked doors. As you know, we have been live-streaming a Sunday Mass each week – but we could not and cannot open it to public participation, since that would instantly exceed our permitted attendance. We had a couple of funerals, which were trick as both of the deceased (Bill Lehman and Donna Brennan) have five children. Numbers were tricky, but many family members and all friends were told not to come, and Mass was celebrated.
Maryland began Phase One of reopening on May 15 (yes, that long ago) at the direction of the Governor. Religious gathering would be permitted at 50% of capacity of the building; that would be around 400 persons for us at Saint Bernadette. Maryland entered Phase Two of reopening last Friday, June 5, which allowed more services to open, but did not change permissions for churches.
Though you may think we are in Maryland, that is not a pertinent reality; no, we are in Montgomery County, and our County Executive asserted that reopening on the Governor’s schedule was impossible, and even three weeks later, when he instituted his own version of Phase One, it was actually MORE restrictive of religious gatherings than “Stay at Home” had been for the state – no indoor gathering, at all, and no contact between congregants and clergy. Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that has not yet already entered Phase Two, OR announced a date to enter Phase Two, OR specified what Phase Two might permit; the other holdout, Prince Georges County, has set June 15 and announced its plan.
So we remain under the tighter restrictions of Montgomery County, with no date and no criteria specified for when the next phase will begin, and no definition or what will be permitted.
The Archbishop’s letter arrived as this discomfort became acute. It could be suggested that it would permit us to go back to the Governor’s original lockdown restrictions, rather than the County’s stricter Phase One prohibitions. But ten people (including clergy) still would not make it possible for genuinely public Masses to resume.
The Governor’s office has acknowledged that under the Maryland constitution, County Executives have the power to impose restrictions of their own. According to my observation, come Monday, that will make us the only county in the United States under this level of restrictions.
Archbishop Gregory gave no indication that he has obtained or even requested of the civil authorities, including ours here in Montgomery, any change in the protocol.
Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of people locally and around the nation interact freely without regard to restrictions or limitations, and without legal consequence, or as yet observed health consequence. You’ve seen the pictures.
We are obliged to wait – for at least a few more days; human hearts can bear only so much, and I am acutely aware of this reality. We are not obliged to be silent, however; nor are we obliged to ignore what this says about our civil officials, and perhaps a few other people too.