MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The governor of Minnesota has issued an order allowing for the resumption of limited public worship gatherings, days after the bishops of the state said they would allow public Masses to resume in defiance of previous guidelines.
The bishops maintained that the original guidelines were unfairly restrictive toward religious services, as businesses and other entities in the state are slowly being allowed to reopen with new safety protocols in place to help guard against the novel coronavirus.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis said he welcomes the executive order by Governor Tim Walz. In a May 23 letter to the members of the archdiocese, he thanked the governor and his team for their willingness to dialogue and arrive at a solution that respects both safety and freedom of religion.
“As you know, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota believe that the previous limitation on faith-based gatherings to ten people unreasonably burdened the Church’s ability to fully meet the sacramental needs of our faithful,” Archbishop Hebda said in the letter.
“As allowances were made for other, less essential activities, it seemed to many that the life of faith was receiving unequal treatment,” he continued. “The new executive order removes that unreasonable burden on the Church and allows us to bring the Eucharist, the food of everlasting life, to our community.”
A May 13 executive order began Minnesota’s second stage of statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic. The order, issued by Governor Walz, reopens retail businesses and will gradually reopen restaurants and bars, but limits religious services to 10 people or fewer, with no timeline for loosening religious restrictions.
On May 20, the bishops of Minnesota said they would allow parishes to resume public Masses at one-third of church capacity on May 26, in defiance of the statewide order.
They bishops said the governor’s order was overly broad, to the point of defying reason, since significantly greater numbers of people were permitted to enter stores and shopping malls. They said they believed Masses could be resumed in a way that adhered to health and safety standards.
The bishops said they had attempted to work with state leaders, but had not received a concrete timeline or reasonable roadmap for resuming public Masses. Lutheran churches in the area also announced a plan to reopen without the governor’s permission.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which had worked alongside law firm Sidley Austin to raise the churches’ religious freedom concerns with the governor, said the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod worked with the governor’s office to develop a plan for houses of worship to open safely and responsibly on May 27.
While the Minnesota bishops had initially granted permission for public Masses to resume on May 26, Archbishop Hebda explained that the additional day will allow parishes to have a chance to reconsider plans based on new protocols, which were developed with the help of public health officials.
These protocols include limiting attendance to 25% of church capacity, or 250 people, whichever is lower, rather than the one-third capacity the bishops had initially proposed.
“Even with these revisions, we hope that parishes already planning to come together on Sunday, May 31, for the celebration of Pentecost and the conclusion of the Easter season, should still be able to do that,” Hebda said.
The archbishop stressed that Governor Walz is trusting faith communities to make responsible decisions as they gather for public worship.
“The bishops of Minnesota have repeatedly told our pastors and parishes that they should only return to public Mass when they are able and willing to follow the many protocols that have been put in place – including sanitization and a few changes to the liturgy, particularly regarding the reception of Holy Communion [in the hand],” he said. “If a parish is not confident they are ready, they should not open. Period.”
Other changes to the liturgy will include a suspension of the Sign of Peace and the use of hand sanitizer by Eucharistic ministers before the distribution of communion.
Archbishop Hebda recognized the sacrifice of the faithful in the archdiocese who have been unable to receive the Eucharist in recent weeks, while reiterating that the dispensation from the Sunday obligation to attend Mass remains in place, and those who are sick, vulnerable, or uncomfortable attending Mass at this time should remain at home.
He also thanked the priests who have ministered to their people and to the sick, recognizing the risk associated with doing so. He called the faithful to pray for the sick and dying, the first responders and health care workers treating them, and for an end to the pandemic.
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said Minnesota should be a model for other states that have closed houses of worship.
“Governor Walz is to be commended for seeing the light,” he said. “Minnesota is setting an example by recognizing the importance of giving equal treatment to churches and other houses of worship, and that worship services can be conducted safely, cooperatively, and responsibly.”