First phase of reopening Churches implemented

Churches throughout the Diocese of Venice have opened for private prayer in what is the first phase of a process toward reopening Churches for all liturgical celebrations and access to the Sacraments. This was done in response to the State of Florida announcement of the relaxation of stay-at-home order and the reopening of some businesses and lays the groundwork for the eventual opening of Churches for Mass.

“The Diocese is planning so that Parishes are able to move gradually and prudently towards resumption of public celebrations of Mass as soon as local conditions permit this to be done safely,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane in an April 28 letter to the priests of the Diocese explained the planning process for this first phase.

In the letter, the Bishop noted that each Parish would have its own procedures for opening based on a multiple of factors. The factors included, but were not limited to, the size/layout of the worship space, the ability to do regular cleaning, the availability of volunteers and ultimately to have the confidence that the health and safety of the Faithful and the Parish staff and volunteers are maintained at all times.

The Bishop added that he understood and appreciated the extra effort required by the priests and Parishes to facilitate the opening, but “because the Faithful are hungry for a return to the Church and for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, this desire is worthy of the extra effort.” It is expected this first phase will allow for a growing reassurance by the Faithful that it will be safe to return for Mass once it is possible to do so.

Throughout this process, Bishop Dewane has been consulting with priests from across the Diocese while following guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Florida Department of Health.

Naturally concerned about the health and well-being of all, Bishop Dewane said his focus is also on the spiritual health of the Faithful. “I am confident that these visits will yield abundant spiritual fruit in personal holiness and the communion of our Parishes. This will eventually lead to being able to offer the access to all of the life-giving Sacraments in the near future.”

At the Church of the Resurrection Parish in Fort Myers caution tape was laid over the various pews to mark off where to sit. This has been a common solution for several Parishes. For example, at Resurrection every third pew was partially open on each side to ensure a minimum 6-foot spacing for adequate social distancing. A volunteer was present in the narthex to offer hand sanitizer and to direct people to available places for prayer. Once a person departed, the volunteer would then wipe down the pew. All are always required to wear a mask.

Caroline Herbert said it was good to be able to prayer in the Church for the first time since early March. “I felt lost with my Church closed, but it is comforting to know it is now open for private prayer.”

Herbert said she was hopeful the Mass would be offered soon, but understood the complicated logistics involved in making that happen. “The way they have the Church blocked off now, there would only be room for 30 or so people. That really isn’t enough, but if it is what is needed to make it safe, then that is what it will be. I pray for a solution that is best for everyone.”

Visitors for private prayer at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice are greeted in the narthex and shown a seating chart for the Church. The faithful selects the spot from where they wish to pray and given a number that corresponds to that spot. A volunteer escort is provided as a guide. Upon leaving the Church, through a different door, the faithful are asked to drop their number off in a basket. The Parish cleaning staff later uses those numbers as guidance for deeper cleaning. This system works well as only between 20 and 50 people are coming for prayer throughout each day.

Bishop Dewane as well as priests across the Diocese are now in the process of determining the best way to open for Mass, noting that maximum 25 percent capacity and 6-foot distancing of unrelated individuals creates challenges for all Churches.

No matter when the public Mass resumes, the faithful should expect changes. Church capacities will be greatly reduced and seating restricted. Face masks will be required, no worship aides, holy water fonts will be empty, no choirs, no Precious Blood, and Communion should be taken in the hand.

The general dispensation for the obligation to attend Mass will continue even when the offering of public Mass resumes. Those who are vulnerable, elderly, caregivers to the vulnerable, or just not comfortable going to a public Mass, should continue to participate in live-streamed Masses being offered and make a “Spiritual Communion.”

“The Faithful will need to have patience and understanding during this process as well as to take personal responsibility in their actions when they return to ensure the health and safety of themselves and of their brothers and sisters in Christ.”