The bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has lifted a diocesan ban on the public celebration of Mass, issued guidelines for distribution of Holy Communion, and told priests they may resume sacramental ministry if they follow state-ordered health precautions.

“We [as priests] have been called by Christ and ordained to serve the people of the diocese of Las Cruces, to bring them hope and consolation during this difficult time,” Bishop Peter Baldacchino wrote in a letter dated April 15 and obtained by Catholic News Agency.

The announcement came days after New Mexico’s governor banned gatherings of more than five people, a restriction Baldacchino said priests must observe, even as the bishop expressed his objection to it.

Baldacchino is the first U.S. bishop known to have amended a previously declared diocesan ban on public Masses since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the U.S. last month.

The bishop also made provision for priests to resume weddings and funerals in accordance with state regulations on social distancing, and granted permission for them to be held outside on Church property for the duration of the pandemic….

In his letter, Baldacchino said, “It has become increasingly clear that the state shutdown will last for some time. Depriving the faithful of the nourishment offered through the Eucharist was indeed a difficult decision, one that I deemed necessary until I had further clarity regarding our current state of affairs, but it cannot become the status quo for the foreseeable future….

“We are all aware of the tragedy caused by the Coronavirus, I myself have lost two close friends of mine, priests I studied and served with. I am fully conscious of the death and sadness these days seem to bring. And yet there is more. The Coronavirus can also be a help to us. How long have we settled down in our ‘usual way’ of doing things? For how long have we grown comfortable with our routines? For how long have we taken the grace of the sacraments for granted? Or the beauty of the assembly at Mass?…”

The bishop pointed to reports that the Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal crisis hotline run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has seen an 891 percent increase of calls during the pandemic, with large spikes also being recorded at suicide prevention hotlines. He noted reports of increases in domestic violence in places under lockdown….

Revoking the suspension of public Masses, in place in the diocese since March 16, the bishop said that priests are now allowed to celebrate Masses in the presence of the faithful “while maintaining all current health precautions set forth by the state and federal government.”

Baldacchino’s letter noted that the state of New Mexico recently updated its Public Health Order, which no longer includes churches as “essential services.”

“I strongly disagree,” he said. “Sadly, the governor is no longer exempting places of worship from the restrictions on ‘mass gatherings.’ It seems to me that while we run a daily count of the physical deaths we are overlooking those who are dead interiorly.”

To comply with the governor’s directive, guidelines issued to all priests limit attendance at Mass in church buildings to five people, including the celebrant, and insist that a minimum safe distance of six feet be observed and all seating sanitized after Mass ends.

Baldacchino authorized priests to celebrate Mass outdoors, in compliance with state guidance on social distancing, and specifically recommended setting up an altar in the parish parking lot with parishioners remaining in their cars with an empty space between each vehicle.

“Parishes that lack sufficient parking spaces may celebrate the liturgies in open cemeteries or other available open spaces. Parishioners should maintain at least a six feet separation at all times,” the guidance states.

Over the Easter Triduum, the bishop had a stage erected outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and celebrated the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil for local Catholics who remained in their cars….

“Priests may and should continue to offer” the sacraments, he said. “The faithful are not to be deprived of this sacrament, especially when in danger of death.”

In recent weeks, Baldacchino himself has frequently heard confessions behind a screen outside the cathedral in Las Cruces.


The above comes from an April 15 story on the site of the Catholic News Agency.