Reference Articles

To Keep People safe in Church

Dr. Anthony Fauci:

To keep churches safe, use masks, limit singing and wait to resume Communion

Michael J. O’Loughlin


As states around the country begin to ease stay-at-home orders, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said churches should adopt “common sense” measures to protect worshippers and the wider community, like requiring masks, practicing social distancing and prohibiting singing.

Regarding the distribution of Communion, he said, “I think for the time being, you just gotta forestall that.”

In an interview with America on May 26, Dr. Fauci said churches in places experiencing a sustained decline in coronavirus cases can slowly take steps to reopen safely by following public health guidelines, including those released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Fauci serves on the White House’s coronavirus task force.

“You always have to take into account what the dynamic of the outbreak is in your particular region,” Dr. Fauci said. “Having said that, when you’re dealing with a nationwide outbreak like we have right now, you’ve really got to take precautions.”

Churches should “limit the number of people, so that you don’t have people in the pews right next to each other,” he said. Those gathered should “absolutely” wear masks, Dr. Fauci said.

Asked if he thinks Communion can be distributed safely, Dr. Fauci said “no,” especially in areas still getting the virus under control.

“If the priest is on the altar, separated by 30, 40, 50 feet, you know, I wouldn’t think it was absolutely necessary to [use masks],” he said. “But the people who are within six, 10 feet of each other really need to.”

In addition, singing should be discouraged, Dr. Faucis said, because it dramatically increases the distance that droplets travel, adding to the possibility of spreading infection.

“When you sing, the amount of droplets and aerosol that come out is really, in some respects, scary,” he said.

Last week, President Trump demanded governors classify houses of worship as essential services and allow them to reopen immediately. But many religious organizations, including Catholic dioceses, are opting for a slower approach, consulting with public health officials before reopening their doors.

Dioceses in New York, Illinois, Michigan and other states hard hit by the virus are in the process of releasing plans and guidelines that instruct parishes to adopt safety measures similar to those suggested by public health officials, including Dr. Fauci. Churches will continue to offer Communion, with many dioceses requiring eucharistic ministers to wear masks and instructing them to use hand sanitizer. Some dioceses are even permitting Catholics to continue receiving the host on the tongue, raising concerns among some Catholics, including the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, which said earlier this month that the practice should be suspended during the pandemic.

Asked if he thinks Communion can be distributed safely, Dr. Fauci said “no,” especially in areas still getting the virus under control. Last week, researchers said that in 24 states, especially in the South and Midwest, the coronavirus is still spreading at an epidemic rate. Dr. Fauci expressed concern not only about a shared cup for consecrated wine but also about distribution of hosts, and he suggested waiting until the outbreak is more controlled before reintroducing Communion.

“It depends on where you are,” he said. “If you are in a region, a city, a county, where there is a significant amount of infection, I think with distributing Communion, I think that would be risky. I’m telling you that as a Catholic, it would be risky.”

He said the interaction between the priest and multiple people receiving Communion makes distribution unsafe.

“As many times as a priest can wash his hands, he gets to Communion, he puts it in somebody’s hand, they put it in their mouth…it’s that kind of close interaction that you don’t want when you’re in the middle of a deadly outbreak,” he said.

A graduate of two Jesuit schools, Regis High School in New York and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., Dr. Fauci said his parents taught him the importance of service, lessons that were fortified by the Jesuits. In particular, he said Regis and Holy Cross taught him to appreciate the importance of “knowledge, facts, evidence, intellectual pursuit and intellectual honesty.”

Describing himself as a Catholic, Dr. Fauci said the values he learned from the Jesuits continue to guide him. “I identify more, much more, with that than the concept of organized churches, religions,” he said.

Dr. Fauci has held his post at the National Institutes of Health since 1984. He said that some lessons he learned from the government’s response to H.I.V. and AIDS continue to guide his work, especially the insight that it is important to listen to the communities that are most affected by public health crises.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he said, that meant listening to activists from the L.G.B.T. community, people who used intravenous drugs and sex workers. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, he said, it is clear communities of color are being more affected.

“The disparity is striking,” he said, pointing to high levels of infection and deaths related to the coronavirus among African-Americans. “What I learned from H.I.V. is, take a look at what’s going on in the community when you make your policy decisions.”

That means policymakers should “concentrate resources in those areas of our cities and of our states that are highly representative of minority communities because they are the ones that suffer disproportionately more than anyone else,” he added.

With dioceses around the country preparing to invite the public to Masses, which in most places have been suspended since March, individual Catholics will need to decide for themselves how much risk they are willing to take in terms of going to church. Dr. Fauci said he believes some people should continue to avoid crowded situations whenever possible, including religious services. He said that in the short time since the coronavirus was discovered, churches have been shown to be particularly risky in terms of creating clusters of infection.

“There have been situations in multiple countries where the source of the cluster was a church service,” he said. “That’s the reason why we gotta be so careful about that.”

As a result, even if churches are open, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions should consider staying home, “because they really are at high risk,” he said. “It would be so tragic for someone who just comes to a place of worship, gets sick themselves, or gets infected and brings it home to an elderly person who might have a compromising comorbidity, and the person gets seriously ill and dies.”

We should look at fundamentals rather than practicalities of reopening churches

Can we seize this opportunity for reflection on how we relate to God?

Tue, Jun 2, 2020, 01:00
Fr Eugene Duffy

If there is a second surge and the churches cannot be opened for a year we will have to think differently about how the life of the Church will continue Photograph Alan Betson

If there is a second surge and the churches cannot be opened for a year, we will have to think differently about how the life of the Church will continue. Photograph: Alan Betson

The prospect of churches reopening for Sunday Masses by July 20th has forced clergy to consider how to make the buildings and the rituals compliant with Government regulations and to ensure the safety of congregations.

It is a daunting task on many levels.

A very high percentage of the clergy and the volunteers in parishes, who might be expected to assist in the efforts, are in the high-risk category. To sustain the effort in the long term will be very challenging. Apart from the practicalities, I am wondering how much time is being given by our leadership to reflecting on some of the pastoral and theological issues involved.

We need to explore some of the good work in the area of evangelisation that is now being done online and see how this can be extended

If there is a second surge and the churches cannot be opened for a year, we will have to think differently about how the life of the Church will continue.

We need to remember that our gathering in the church is not the only way we can sustain the life of Christian faith and practice.

We could also remember that possibly a majority of Catholics in the world cannot access weekly Sunday Eucharist, even if they wanted to.

We might think of the Jewish people who suffered the loss of the Temple in 70 AD. Judaism did not disappear; the people adapted to the new reality and Judaism then became deeply embedded in the life of the family, which has become the principal agent in the transmission of the Jewish faith.

Their loss was permanent, ours is only temporary.

Can we not seize this opportunity for some profound reflection on how we relate to God in significant ways, apart from the sacramental moments, and nurture these so that when we do reassemble on Sundays our celebrations will be richer and more profound?

Several decades ago, the great French Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, wrote: “I could quote a whole series of ancient texts, all saying more or less that if in one country Mass was celebrated for 30 years without preaching and in another there was preaching for 30 years without Mass, people would be more Christian in the country where there was preaching.”

For generations in this country, parish missions, especially the evening sessions, which were primarily preaching occasions without Mass, kept popular faith and piety alive and vibrant.

Vatican II is also emphatic on the preaching of the word as the primary task of the bishop and priest, and the sacraments are but the highest point of that proclamation.

We need to explore some of the good work in the area of evangelisation that is now being done online and see how this can be extended, although there is no substitute for people engaging with one another face to face, side by side, whether in families or other groupings.

We could encourage and better resource people to pray in families. We could encourage and lead people in acts of charity in imaginative and useful ways. These and other possibilities need to be explored.

We have limited much of our Christian identity to attendance at the Sunday liturgy, while neglecting to foster the life of daily prayer, reflection on the scriptures and the works of charity that are at the heart of the life of discipleship.

We are, in any case, facing a situation where in a decade or so Sunday Mass will not be celebrated in every parish

The webcam phenomenon is just another more pronounced aspect of this vicarious activity, where many, but not all, passively watch the priest at prayer. This can further absolve people of the responsibility to pray themselves or with others in a more ordinary or spontaneous way.

I am struck by the fact that the GAA seems to have assumed the charitable outreach in local communities in a more prominent way than ecclesial/parish groups have done. This raises a question about the role or brief of pastoral councils in most parishes. This crisis also raises questions about the how the ministry of the permanent deacons is being exercised.

Perhaps our current anxiety about opening churches is further feeding the superficiality that has characterised much of our practice for too long. I would like to see and to hear more from pastoral ministers on the spirituality that sustains people in crises rather than expending energies on the technicalities of sanitising spaces and crowd management.

We might just be missing an opportunity for profound renewal. It reminds me of how we received the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in Ireland. We did the mechanical things, like reordering sanctuaries, but did not take on board the theology that underpinned the structural alterations and have reaped the harvest of that neglect for decades.

I fear that we are once more attending to the practicalities rather than looking at the fundamentals. We are, in any case, facing a situation where in a decade or so Sunday Mass will not be celebrated in every parish and we will have to start thinking at last about how the life of faith is sustained in such situations.

This crisis might be a good dress rehearsal.  

Rev Eugene Duffy lectures in Theology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.