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Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston preparing to reopen Mass

WHEELING — The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is preparing for the restart of Mass in Roman Catholic churches across West Virginia.

While public mass will not be held this Sunday, the Most Rev. Mark Brennan, bishop of the diocese, said Tuesday a committee of religious and lay leaders was created to make recommendations and receive recommendations on how to safely resume the public celebration of the Mass.

Gov. Jim Justice said public church services could resume as early as this Sunday as part of his plan to reopen the state economy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, church officials said parishes must submit action plans that will be approved by Brennan before they can resume public Mass.

“While respecting our public officials’ norms, we are developing our plan for the resumption of public Masses on the basis of Catholic liturgical practice and Church law as well as with an abundance of caution to preserve the health and safety of our people and their priests,” Brennan said.

Brennan announced March 13 that in-person church services were indefinitely suspended, although he continued to lead Mass through online telecasts, including on Easter Sunday. Brennan excused parishioners from attending Mass and echoed that sentiment Tuesday when he said “the dispensation to attend Mass on Sunday will be continued until further notice.”

“There are many across our diocese who are elderly or who are in what health officials deem ‘high risk’ for COVID-19,” Brennan said. “We must continue the dispensation for their benefit, and I encourage those faithful to remain in their homes and continue to watch Masses on TV or via live stream.”

Msgr. Eugene Ostrowski, vicar general for the diocese, is leading the committee to form a plan on how Mass can be safely resumed.

The committee will compile a list of procedures, which will then be sent to parishes, Ostrowski said. Each parish will then submit an action plan that must be approved by the bishop before public Mass will be permitted to resume.

A timeline has not been determined.

“There are a great number of challenges to safely gather our faithful in churches throughout the state,” Ostrowski said. “It is prudent for us to do so in the safest manner possible.”

The committee will review ways for parishioners to be able to physically distance from each other by limiting the number of people in the church and leaving pews empty. People could also be required to wear facemasks and sanitizer also will be available.

The sign of peace during the Mass and the offering of Communion wine will be suspended, Ostrowski said. The committee also will research ways for parishioners to enter and exit churches and will empty the Holy Water fonts, change how collection baskets are distributed and limit the number of musicians and cantors.

“This committee is determined to ensure the health and safety of the Catholic faithful as well as our priests,” Ostrowski said. “Doing so fulfills Christ’s command to love our neighbor.”

Diocese officials said the live stream of daily and weekend Masses can continue on its website at www.dwc.org/mass after stay-at-home orders are lifted.

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