SAN DIEGO — The pandemic continues, but parish life in the Diocese of San Diego is now one step closer to normal.
Bishop Robert McElroy has issued updated guidelines for the safe celebration of public Masses, inaugurating a period of greater re-opening at diocesan parishes. The new policies, announced on April 15, are effective immediately.
The most significant change deals with capacity. While the previous guidelines had limited churches to 25-percent capacity, the only requirement now is that six feet of social distance be maintained between everyone except members of the same family.
“I believe that pastors and many parishioners throughout the diocese will appreciate the increased options for celebrating Mass indoors,” said Rod Valdivia, vice-moderator of the diocesan curia. “On the other hand, pastors are also very aware that a large number of people still feel more comfortable with outdoor liturgies, and even viewing them remotely on TV or online, and are committed to maintaining these options, too.”
Other ongoing COVID safety measures, including the requirement that face masks be worn at all times and current rules pertaining to the distribution of the Eucharist, remain in effect. Holy Communion is distributed in the hand only, and the faithful are not offered the chalice with the Precious Blood.
Though the guidelines for liturgical gatherings have been loosened, restrictions are still in place for other types of church events. Beginning on May 23, faith formation, catechetical, Bible and liturgical groups can begin meeting, but attendance is limited to 50 people or fewer until the diocese’s full re-opening on Sept. 1. Until September, no social gatherings, meals, fundraisers or similar events are to take place.
The bishop also announced a tentative date for when Catholics in San Diego and Imperial counties will no longer be dispensed from attending Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation. The dispensation, which has been in effect since March 2020, is expected to expire on the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 28, 2021. At each parish, the lifting of the dispensation will be preceded by a multi-week catechesis on the Eucharist.
Bishop McElroy also highlighted the importance of expanding parishes’ Eucharistic outreach to the sick and homebound. However, he said, that ministry should be carried out only by fully vaccinated priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The homebound parishioners visited by them also should be vaccinated.
The bishop encouraged priests to anoint those who are seriously ill, “governed by pastoral prudence,” and to expand the availability of the sacrament of Reconciliation when possible.
Another notable change under the new guidelines affects music ministry. While congregational singing indoors continues to be discouraged, the bishop said parishes need no longer limit themselves to a single cantor accompanied by a musician. He approved the use of choirs and multiple instrumentalists, as long as 12 feet of social distancing from one another and from the congregation is observed.
Matt Dolan, choir director for the 4:30 p.m. Saturday vigil Mass at The Immaculata Parish, acknowledged that his parish has “a bit of a space issue” in its choir loft. To maintain the required 12 feet of distance, the choir will be limited to a quartet and few musical instruments.
But he welcomed the new policy.
“Since I’ve been doing this, it’s always been about getting the full, active participation of the assembly, and we’ve had to stop that” because of COVID, said Dolan, who has been part of The Immaculata’s music ministry since 1997 and previously served as music director.
“Being able to bring in nice four-part harmonies, even though we still can’t ask the congregation to sing yet, is still a lot better,” he said.
“With these new guidelines,” Valdivia said, “the faithful will have a wider array of options to participate in Masses as we look toward the end of the pandemic restriction later in the year.”
[This story was updated April 28, 2021, with additional details.]