San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.
Bishop Robert McElroy leads a diocese that runs the length of California’s border with Mexico and serves more than 1.3 million Catholics in San Diego and Imperial Counties with 98 parishes. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diego Roman Catholic leaders are beginning to announce resumption of in-person Masses as early as June 8 after closing for COVID-19 in mid-March.

Parishes may hold services indoors, outdoors or a hybrid.

“After a great deal of discussion, we concluded that the first weekend for the public celebration of the Eucharist in our parishes should be the feast of Corpus Christi, June fourteenth,” Bishop Robert McElroy said in a letter written Friday and posted Saturday on a private Facebook group. “This seems a beautifully symbolic and joyful feast in which to bring together anew our Eucharistic communities.”

Bishop Robert McElroy’s letter dated Friday and posted on Facebook. (PDF)

But McElroy said a weekday opening has been suggested.

“Thus if a pastor wishes to initiate daily Mass from Monday, June 8, that will be permitted,” McElroy wrote in a two-page letter addressed to “My Dear Brother Priest” and sent to all priests of the diocese.

On Sunday, diocesan Vice Chancellor Kevin C. Eckery told Times of San Diego: “We’ll be announcing the reopening plan next week.”

Parishioners are not required to attend in-person Masses. Bishop McElroy has removed the obligation “for the foreseeable future,” and people can opt to worship online.

“All of us must urge sick or especially vulnerable members of our communities to refrain from coming to Mass, and we must continue the wonderful online Masses that so many of you have been providing for your people in these days,” McElroy said.

McElroy wrote that First Communions, the Easter sacraments and Confirmation may be resumed after June 14 with social distancing. He and Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan will be available to preside at Confirmations through June, July and August.

Larger funeral Masses can be held in churches starting June 8, “but for the time being all funeral services in our churches must have the casket closed,” he said.

The Rev. Andre Ramos of Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Santee was among pastors sending letters to parishioners.

“The privilege of celebrating Masses will be ours again but under necessary measures to make sure our acts of worship are safe,” Ramos wrote. “As long as the threat of COVID-19 is not fully eradicated, we have to protect ourselves and others from infection, illness and even death.”

In his own email, the Rev. Carlos Medina of St. Patrick’s said space inside his North Park church has been measured and allows 65 people to enter and spaced 6 feet apart.

“There could be more people, since these measurements and calculations did not take into consideration households,” he said in a letter dated May 16 about the “preliminary draft” of the plan. “However, on average Sundays prior to the ongoing pandemic, two of our Masses reached over 200 people in average attendance.”

Medina added that St. Patrick’s will continue to livestream or record Masses on YouTube with the link posted on Facebook and his website.

Baptisms, weddings and funeral Masses will be allowed beginning the second week of June. “However, distancing and other measures must be complied with,” church officials said.

Basics will be:

  • No wine (traditionally shared from a communal same glass) during Communion, and no wafers will placed on the tongue.
  • Face masks will be required.
  • Hand sanitizers should be used.
  • Physical distancing will be compulsory.
  • Hymns will be restricted.

“Masses will need to be shorter, essential liturgical parts shall be retained and some can be omitted and a few others are outright forbidden,” Eckery said via email.

Pastoral letter to North Park’s St. Patrick’s Church Parish. (PDF)

Prayer missals and songbooks will be removed, and choirs are being eliminated.

“Singing won’t be allowed because of evidence suggesting droplets projected while singing travel further than those generated by normal speech,” Eckery said.

He said the diocese would be setting guidelines for all parishes to follow.

The letter posted on a private Facebook page for 300 San Diego Catholics was sent to all priests of the diocese, he said.

“The involvement of priests and pastors has been central to developing a practical and effective plan to reopen safely,” he said as churches statewide looked forward to guidance Monday from Gov. Gavin Newsom on how churches can reopen.

Sunday’s letters appear to signal a sudden change of plans on when to announce the resumption of Masses.

On Friday, McElroy wrote that the Rev. Peter McGuine of El Cajon’s Our Lady of Grace Parish led a diocesan group on reopenings.

“His committee could complete its review of the parish plans you have designed by next Friday,” McElroy said. “It was felt that it would take another week to recruit the volunteers, carry out the communications program with your parishioners, institute social distancing plans and secure resources for adequate hygiene.”

As of noon Sunday, the latest official word from the San Diocese, posted on its website May 4, said: “As a diocese, we strongly support these recommendations and defer to the opinion of health experts. This is not a challenge to our Catholic beliefs. On the contrary, we respect the science and want no part of putting the health of our fellow parishioners or their families at risk.”

According to guidelines distributed to parishioners at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in North Park:

  • The faithful must remain in their pew/place for the duration of the Mass/service/celebration.
  • They may recite prayers and responses where appropriate to the Mass/celebration, but they must not sing, or shake hands. They must refrain from touching their faces.
  • Instrumental music or a single vocalist will be allowed — even though parishioners won’t be singing.
  • Instead of shaking hands or exchanging hugs at the Sign Of Peace, the priest will encourage parishioners to wave or nod to each other.
  • The distribution of the Eucharist will take place at the end of the Mass, to minimize the movement of people. There will be markings taped on the floor as a guide for social distance so that communion line at the end of Mass maintains six feet of separation between communicants. The Eucharist is to be received only in the hand.
  • There should be no social gatherings before or after Mass.
  • Bishop McElroy doesn’t approve of Mass in a parking lot where people stay in their cars, so people will be asked to bring their own chairs.
  • Facemasks/coverings are not required for children under the age of 2 years old due to the risk of suffocation, in accordance with county health regulations.
  • There are to be no altar servers.
  • Holy water fonts will be empty.

St. Patrick’s Medina suggested a special location may be set up for people with conditions such as allergies or a dry throat “so that their cough may not cause distress to others. We might need a parishioner physician to oversee these parishioners who are likely to be non-contagious.”

In his letter, Bishop McElroy said he had spoken at length Friday with Dr. Wilma Wooten, county public health director, “and received support for our plan to reopen our parishes in a manner that will vigorously safeguard public health.”

On Friday, the Garden Grove-based Diocese of Orange County announced that public Masses can begin with vigil Masses on June 13 “in a phased-in approach with measures in place to safeguard public health.”

Dioceses in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento haven’t announced opening dates yet.

Updated at 1:48 p.m. May 24, 2020