Discussion: Guidelines on returning to public liturgy

Photo by rob.brink on Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As churches begin to develop guidelines for reopening, Pray Tell is interested in your thoughts. There are broad agreements between the various guidelines being developed (see below), but also differences. How would you balance the desire for safety with the desire to be able to receive the sacraments? What plans does your parish or diocese have for reopening, and how will these guidelines look in your context? We’d like to hear what you have to say.

Here is a summary of some of the guidelines that are being published. If you know of others, please share them.

Italy – Liturgy resumes Monday, May 18 (guidelines in Italian)

  • Seating and floors marked to maintain social distancing of 1.5 meters between participants
  • Hand sanitizer at the entrances to all churches
  • Masks for all congregants
  • No choirs permitted
  • Sign of Peace omitted
  • Holy Water fonts drained
  • Collection baskets will not be passed during Mass
  • Communion only in the hand
  • Priest wears gloves and a mask to distribute Communion

Germany – Liturgy resuming between April 20 and May 10, with dioceses staggering their start dates (summary of guidelines in English)

  • Aisles and doors marked as “one way” to control traffic flow
  • Seating and floors marked to maintain social distancing of 1.5 meters between participants
  • Ministers limited to priest, 2 altar servers, 1 lector, 1 cantor, and organist. No choirs permitted.
  • No offertory procession – the gifts will already be at the altar
  • Sign of Peace omitted
  • No reception of the chalice for the assembly
  • Holy Water fonts drained
  • Participants should bring their own missals
  • Collection baskets will not be passed during Mass
  • Priest wears gloves and/or uses an instrument to distribute Communion
  • Distribution of Communion is silent – neither the priest nor the communicant will speak.

United States – dioceses are developing guidelines and making decisions individually about when to resume public liturgy. The USCCB Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship has sent out guidelines developed by the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions has also developed guidelines.

Dominican House of Studies guidelines:

  • Liturgy resumes in three phases: gatherings of 10 people or fewer, gatherings of up to 50 people, and gatherings unlimited in size. The guidelines note that people could be admitted first come, first served or on a rotation or ticketed basis. There is also a provision for drive-thru Masses where people remain in their cars.
  • Congregants must wear masks
  • Ministers should practice social distancing of six feet at all times but should not wear masks
  • Hand sanitizer is placed at the entrances of the church and used before and during Communion
  • Holy water fonts are drained
  • Communion may be received in the hand or on the tongue
  • Floors and seating will be marked to help people achieve appropriate social distancing of about six feet
  • Musicians should practice social distancing, and no large choirs are allowed.
  • The offertory procession and Sign of Peace should be omitted
  • The assembly should not receive from the chalice during Communion
  • The hosts that will be consumed by the assembly may be placed “toward the side of the altar” on a separate corporal from the one that will be consumed by the priest
  • Three options for distributing Communion: faithful do not receive at all, faithful receive after Mass, or faithful receive at the normal time during Mass
  • Gloves may not be worn for distributing or receiving Communion. The priest may wear a mask to distribute Communion if it is done after Mass.
  • Provision is also made for the distribution of Communion outside of Mass altogether (e.g., following a livestreamed Mass)

Rita Ferrone offered her reflections upon these guidelines here for Pray Tell.

FDLC guidelines:

  • Everyone should practice social distancing of about 6 feet
  • All assembly members ages 2+ should wear cloth masks
  • Hymnals should be removed and disposable worship aids or digital projection used
  • “Cry rooms” should be closed
  • Hand sanitizer is placed at the entrances of the church
  • Holy water fonts are drained
  • The offertory procession is omitted
  • There is no physical contact at the Sign of Peace or during the Our Father
  • The manner of reception of Communion is determined by the Bishop for his locality. Possible changes may include:
    • The assembly should not receive from the chalice during Communion
    • Reception of Communion on the tongue may be prohibited
  • Use of gloves or tongs/other instruments for the distribution of Communion is not encouraged
  • The Communion Rite is an essential and unmovable element of the Order of Mass

What do you think? What is essential guidance? What should be left up to parishes and pastors? What most worries you about the return to public worship?


  1. Teach the ASL version of the peace greeting. I also like the gradual increase of participants over a period of time (first, 10; then 25; then 50, etc.)

  2. I’ve already commented on the BCDW / Dominican House of Studies guidelines.
    Allow me to mention a couple of other facts: Mexico suspended the words at distribution of communion even in March. And Malawi is suspending communion on the tongue.
    In the U.S., the Milwaukee guidelines suggest using an alphabetical plan to organize who can come to which Mass. I can’t think of anything less likely to feel natural.

    1. How people get allowed into Mass is popping as a topic here.
      Milwaukee’s alphabetical is interesting.
      Our diocese is suggesting people need to register ahead of time, which scares me greatly, due to the world’s digital divide (the homeless, the rural, etc.)
      And registering at the door for contact tracing.

    2. Rita, I share your concerns about how the decisions are made about who gets in and who doesn’t. Thanks for the information about Mexico and Malawi. I’ll update the post above to link back to your commentary on the guidelines from the BCDW, too – it was really helpful.

  3. I’m serving as Roman Catholic theological consultant to the following project: https://www.facebook.com/Ecumenical-Protocols-for-Worship-Fellowship-and-Sacramental-Practices-102239248149588 — “Ecumenical Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacramental Practices,” being run by Ed Phillips (Candler/Emory), Taylor Burton Edwards (UMC, pastoring ELCA parish, NAAL Secretary), and UMC Bishop Larry Goodpaster. Two more three-hour consultations will occur on Facebook Live on their Facebook site over the next two Tuesdays.

    1. Thanks for sharing this. It will be interesting to see what emerges from those consultations.

    2. there are a number of Anglican guidelines already published (I like the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona’s clarity in her three phases discussion…we’re just puttng guidelines together for the diocese in which I work…lots of interesting variations circling around the eucharistic celebrations…

  4. I have offered commentary elsewhere (https://www.ncronline.org/news/coronavirus/theologians-concerned-over-bishops-plans-10-person-pandemic-masses ). I would add, though, that the FDLC guidelines offer important pastoral observations about which the Thomistic Institute is silent. Examples include:
    • Advising ministers not to begin re-started Masses with the bare announcement that “‘Our opening hymn is. . . ’”
    • Advising ministers that people in the pew may “need encouragement to fully participate again (even through masks).”
    • Suggesting the use of “familiar melodies and texts,” “music with repetitive refrains” and the use of “longer hymns for the Communion rite.”

    1. Thanks, Dr. Brunk – I did notice the pastoral tone of the FDLC guidelines and the emphasis on good communication, and I appreciated it, too. Clearly the post-COVID reality is going to be different; how it is presented could be the thing that makes the biggest difference in people’s experiences of coming back. We shouldn’t underestimate how important it is to set the right tone in the intermediate time between now and when things are fully back to the new normal, whatever that will look like.

    1. On the hand-wringing about how to receive Communion, I think people of faith can accept their bishop’s invitation to adhere to a request. Or they can choose to make a scene, either in church or on social media. I think your articles contain ample padding, but they dodge an important matter of the first and fourth qualities of the Church as you, I, and they recite in the Creed. Do the protests advance unity with other worshipers and the bishop? Do they recognize the apostolic tradition behind bishop as shepherd? These are very modernist movements coming from avowed “faithful” and “orthodox” Catholics.

      Many of us find life in the world difficult. Do we bear these things with grace? Or does it derail the whole day? From what I read at NLM, there’s a cottage industry of railing against wrongs–and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially when the wrongs are perpetrated on other people. Too often it looks less like virtue and more like an indulgence for a Culture of Complaint. And what difference is there in that from what goes on in the wide secular world?

      1. Thanks for your comments. I think the way forward is to assume the best intentions on the part of those with whom we seem to disagree. Before our campus closed for the semester, I was waiting to receive Communion during Mass behind a student who normally receives on the tongue. A memo had been circulated that only receiving in the hand would be permitted, but that student had not yet seen the memo. As he approached the priest and opened his mouth, the priest shook his head and kindly tried to direct the student to extend his hands. The student did eventually receive in the hand, but the look on his face as he returned to his seat was one of confusion and pain. I’ll never forget it. If we could keep in mind that those who are asking to receive on the tongue are doing so for reasons of reverence and deep personal conviction and not because they enjoy complaining, we might be able to come to a closer understanding of one another.

      2. There is a difference between one’s own personal devotional preferences and the common good of the entire liturgical assembly.

        The late and great Yves Congar, in his little book Challenge to the Church about Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, commented that using liturgical practices as a rallying banner for dissent if not outright revolt was reprehensible.

        In case anyone has not seen it, there is a very good digest of the canonical issues involved at https://osvnews.com/2020/05/08/can-a-bishop-restrict-how-we-receive-holy-communion/ which concludes that a bishop does indeed have the authority to protect the vast majority of his flock when necessary, no matter what Dr Kwasniewski may think.

        The Archdiocese of St Louis guidelines at https://www.archstl.org/Portals/0/Documents/Communication_Planning/Internal%20Memos/May2020/Archdiocese%20of%20St.%20Louis%20Guidelines%20for%20Restart%20of%20Public%20Masses%2005.18.20.pdf stipulate “Communicants are to receive the Host in the hand, in keeping with the advice of state health
        officials and thereby to avoid the Communion minister’s fingers coming into contact with saliva or particles exhaled from the communicants’ mouth onto the ministers’ fingers.”

        I thought I read that at least one other diocese has mandated that if a communicant insists on receiving on the tongue, the minister is to do so but then immediately stop distributing and move aside and sanitize their fingers before continuing distribution. (I have read so many guidelines now that I cannot recall which diocese this was.)

      3. Ms Dupuy, I appreciate the search for good intentions. Individuals may feel strongly drawn to a certain decision or another. The position I find troublesome is on social media outlets like NLM where arguments are forwarded to generate political movement, not understanding as such. If I were the Communion Minister for the student, I would have acceded to his at-the-moment request. But I would have tried to seek him out after liturgy to explain and suggest he prepare himself in the future. If I were the liturgist, I would have ensured the memo was audible and explained at Mass. My questions of Dr Kwasniewski are these: why do you find prudential obedience so hard to swallow when you disagree and so easy to insist upon for others who disagree with you?

        As for my own example, I find it a theological problem when I am offered Communion after (not during) a livestreamed Mass and a pastoral one when my parishioners have no such opportunity at all. So I respectfully decline. I choose not to make a liturgical objection to the first point, even though I could, perhaps even persuasively. I appreciated when one of our priests checked in with me about it. It is a very small thing indeed, but as a parish staff member, and obedient collaborator with my bishop, I make a choice I would rather not make. And I don’t make a fuss about it.

  5. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has issued detailed guidelines along with this video for popular consumption. These are all for “Phase 1” in which Masses can be celebrated for no more than 10 people in the context of weddings and funerals (Sunday and weekday Masses will still be livestreamed). Baptisms, anointing of the sick, and confessions will also resume.

    A few points of interest:

    *communion on the tongue is allowed but strongly discouraged.

    *gloves are not to be used in the distribution of communion, either by the minister or the recipient. This is directly counter to directives in other diocese, but it makes sense to me, since a contaminated glove is just as contaminated as a contaminated hand.

    *no vocal music at all; only instrumental music. It will be interesting to see how long before congregational singing makes a return.

    *hosts for the faithful to be kept in covered ciboria, away from the presider’s host, until time for communion.

    *anointings at baptism must be done with a cotton ball, and a shell or other vessel must be used for pouring the baptismal water.

  6. Interesting how other nations have one set of rules that apply to everyone, while in the U.S. we have two non-binding sets of suggestions, then each diocese makes variations on that, then each parish makes variations on that…

    1. Functionally, singing with masks will be a frustration for many – mask precautions are premised on not adjusting/moving them. For folks who need eyeglasses to follow text/music (regardless of where it is), fogging would reinforce that frustration. Given that there will be no reception from the cup, and significantly reduced attendance per Mass, it’s not clear to me that the Communion rite would need prolonged music compared to the old normal and, if anything, may even evolve to be more rather than less amenable to communion antiphons cantored from a distance, as it were.

      1. The prolonged Communion procession is due to distancing in lines, and the interruption for sanitizing (as my bishop has anticipated) when hand-to-hand touching occurs. Receiving from the Cup adds, at most, twenty seconds to a minute to Mass when it is done properly.

      2. Todd

        In some spaces, true. Not in all. And, truth be told, in places where most people don’t receive from the cup offered, it’s also not necessarily a material difference in time. But most of my time in recent years has been in places where reception from the cup was common but that that were not able to be configured to be an immaterial extension of time, so that during the times when the cup was offered, it was a noticeable reduction in time (which, to be clear, is not a reason to applaud such times…).

  7. A general question:
    I had never heard of the Dominican House of Studies until 2 weeks ago. I ‘ll admit I don’t know much about Dominicans, or the Catholic Church in the DC area. I don’t their seriousness and genuine love of the Church, but I surely never heard about them in terms of discussion on anything liturgical. Or scientific. I love my family & friends who are members of religious orders, a few Dominicans among them; but a seminary for Dominicans doesn’t seem the place where I would first go for this sort of guidance.

    What expertise do they have in this area? If any?
    Why is the USCCB highlighting their guidelines, versus that of other organizations?
    Were they just the first to get their guidance out?

    1. They’re located just round the corner from the USCCB HQ — not that that’s necessarily a good reason for consulting them.

      1. LOL. That said, I do tend to think of the Benedictines (and their progeny) and Dominicans among the large orders as those most likely to offer opinions about liturgical praxis and to attract people who are interested in becoming liturgical scholars of divers sorts. (Jesuits, by contrast, tend to self-identify humorously as an order that should only be consulted about avoiding harm in the conduct of liturgy (as in: “we had a successful [ordination/dedication Mass] this weekend – no one was harmed in the proceedings”), though obviously there are exceptions.)

    2. I think they simply had theirs out first, a bishop saw it, and then circulated it. It’s pretty clear that individual bishops are not taking it as Gospel.

      As to expertise, I am not sure exactly what expertise they need to have. If you look at their paper it is clear that it was produced not just by the Dominicans (though one of the Dominicans who contributed is a biologist) but by experts in infectious diseases. It seems to me that what they contributed was getting a group with various areas of expertise around a table to produce a kind of working document that some might find useful.

      Maybe it’s just because I know a number of people at the DHS, but I don’t see a nefarious reactionary plot here.

      1. I don’t know this, but I suspect they went shopping for guidelines that would endorse giving communion on the tongue, despite all evidence to the contrary, and they found it here so they grabbed it.

        There are medical people who signed off on these guidelines, true. That makes it look good. But I wonder if it would stand up if you poked it. After all, even the guidelines say there was disagreement on this point — but you note that they don’t publish the dissenting opinion. There’s a thumb on this scale methinks…

  8. We just got our scenario for reopening (diocese of Palm Beach). It contains two problems that I see in other scenarios. They are things only an usher would think about, But they destroy the rule.
    1) Seating will be marked off at 6-foot intervals. BUT families may stay together. That is mathematically impossible. When a family of three comes in (late, probably) and sits in a marked seat, the two additional members will take up an additional 34 inches (by airline measurements; in fact, probably more), which will, in effect, put the designated seat 3 feet, not 6 feet, away from the next designated seat. Then what?

    2) Ushers will deal with the minor points (like the above case in which 6 feet becomes 3 feet), but ushers generally tend to be in the over-65-with-conditions group which remains excused from Mass, for now.
    I know my concern is not as important liturgically as the items getting more attention. But I can assure you, as an usher, people are not going to be happy when the distancing breaks down and there is no one and nothing to do anything about it.

    1. John, I had the same concerns about establishing distance and working with ushers. Who is to help folks who come in late find seats that meet the distancing requirements? Another concern of mine was if we should try to choreograph the actual physical dismissal of the people in any way, to ensure that they remain six feet apart as they leave (and not rush the exists)! I haven’t seen anything referencing that component of re-establishing public Mass.

  9. After reading the guidelines issued by the Bishop’s Conference, I realized neither the bishops nor their select advisors have the foggiest idea what they’re proposing. I laughed when the recommendation stated that priests over 60 years of age should not be distributing communion. I’d ask what do they think is the average age of priests in New England, or anywhere else in the states? Let’s be serious, no local church community is going to be able to safely and adequately maintain their bathrooms, let alone their physical church structure, sanitizing and disinfecting in an adequate and responsible way. Let’s be real and brutally honest, In order to safely and in a healthy manner reopen church buildings, we are looking at least until September if not October or later. Keep up the tv liturgy presentations…be safe rather than being sorry.

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