Defying order, Catholic leaders say reopening for services is legal

The diocese will allow churches to resume in-person mass next week.
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Archbishop Bernard Hebda

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis believes the decision to reopen at a larger capacity than Gov. Tim Walz's Stay Safe MN order allows is legal. 

"We think we're on sound legal footing," said Archbishop Bernard Hebda, speaking Thursday alongside Bishop Andrew H. Cozzins. "The reasons for our actions isn't legal, it's more pastoral. We have the responsibility to take care of the spiritual needs of our people. We'll see what happens legally, but we think we're on good footing."

Hebda wrote a letter Wednesday giving approval to affiliated parishes to reopen May 26, with in-person Pentecost mass on Sunday May 31. The letter states that churches can reopen at one-third capacity so long as strict safety protocols are followed. 

  • Anyone over age 60 or with underlying conditions should stay home. 
  • Sanitizing hands of priest or deacon and those receiving Communion. 
  • Church leaders and parishioners wear masks at all times. 
  • Any time there is risk of touching, Mass is stopped to sanitize. 
  • Propose to move Communion to the end of Mass to limit movement. 
  • Designated doors for entering and exiting. 
  • Structured seating to maintain social distancing. 

"As we've seen other openings and plans for other openings in the state, it makes us feel much more comfortable with what we are doing because we see a parallel that's there and we certainly see that we need to be treated equally," Hebda said. "

My hope is that there won't be that conflict and we'll be able to come to some kind of an agreement where the governor recognizes the need that's here." 

Archbishop Hebda said he was going to meet with Gov. Walz immediately after his press briefing, though what has since been discussed isn't clear. 

"The bishops of Minnesota and I have always been and continue to be ready to work cooperatively with Gov. Walz. These are very challenging times and I recognize that he has a very difficult job. We want to help all of Minnesota get through this pandemic."

The Stay Safe MN order restricts places of worship from gathering in groups larger than 10 people, be it an indoor or outdoor service. 

"I hope the governor changes his mind," Hebda said. "Please remember that we bishops have a solemn duty, really a responsibility, to provide spiritual care and religious services to our faithful. And that responsibility includes doing it in a way that is safe and responsible."

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Health commissioner addresses risks

Asked about the faith leaders going against the state order, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Thursday that religious gatherings "can pose some special risks because of who's in the congregations," clearly noting the older parishioners who are among the most vulnerable to serious illness if they contract COVID-19. 

In Minnesota, 809 people have died from the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus), including 663 who were residents of long-term care facilities. 

Kris Ehresmann, epidemiologist and director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division at the MDH, offered her own non-scientific feedback based on her place of worship. 

"Even if they could open up, their [her church] concern is for the members who are in vulnerable groups who would so want to be a part of the community that it would be too much of a pull and we'd get people who would be particularly at risk who would want to attend. I've appreciated that perspective," said Ehresmann. 

"What may seem to be OK for a certain segment of the population, could have devastating consequences for others." 

The Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod also announced that it has notified its affiliated Minnesota churches that "they may begin to reopen on Tuesday, May 26, with the first Sunday worship services occurring on Pentecost Sunday, May 31."

The synod's message to Gov. Walz adds: "Now that you have deemed it safe to reopen non-critical businesses in Minnesota, we believe that the essential business of caring for the spiritual needs of our flocks with in-person meetings must also resume in a limited capacity." 

However, Minnesota's Jewish leaders have said their services will remain virtual, in line with the governor's recommendations, per TC Jewfolk.

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