Howard County withdraws restrictions that would have curtailed Eucharist

In an executive order issued May 26, the county executive of Howard County issued regulations for religious institutions that would seem to disallow the distribution of the Eucharist in Catholic churches. After the Archdiocese of Baltimore expressed “serious concerns” about the order, the county acknowledged that the restriction would be withdrawn.

The order noted that the utilization of Howard County General Hospital had decreased seven of the last 14 days, since a spike at 78.8 percent of capacity May 15.

The order allowed barber shops and hair salons to open at 50 percent of maximum occupancy as of 7 a.m. May 29. But the same order continued to limit indoor religious gatherings to no more than 10 people; outdoor religious services would be capped at 250 people.

The executive order mandated: “There shall be no consumption of food or beverage of any kind before, during or after religious services, including food or beverage that would typically be consumed as part of a religious service.”

Such restriction would restrict the distribution of holy Communion, an integral part of a Catholic Mass. In fact, if the priest could not consume the Body and Blood of Christ after consecration, it would not be a valid Mass.

The order also required that all attendees at indoor or outdoor religious services must maintain a 6-foot distance and wear face masks or facial coverings at all times.

A statement from the archdiocese May 27 said, “For the Catholic community, the reception of Communion is central to faith lives and to our public worship. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has developed thorough and carefully thought-out guidelines for resuming public Masses, including detailed guidance on the safe distribution of Communion.

“These guidelines respect both the sanctity of the sacrament and the need for abundant caution to protect the health and safety of both those receiving and distributing Communion,” the statement said.

In a statement May 28, Scott Peterson, Howard County spokesperson, said that since Hogan has announced a modified reopening of restaurants in the state May 27, the county would revisit all food consumption restrictions. “As we move closer to a full Phase 1 reopening, we will be lifting food consumption restrictions for faith institutions,” he said.

As the county works through its next wave of policy changes and analyzing criteria for reopening and temporary restrictions, “We will also continue to work with our faith leaders to provide guidelines that will allow residents to worship safely and all religious leaders to resume practices safely. We continue to evaluate best practices and consider recommendations across all faith institutions.”

He acknowledged that the archdiocese had already released its guidelines for Phase I, which began for some parishes May 15, and Phase II, slated to begin May 30-31.

“We will consider these guidelines, as well as any other guidelines or recommendations for re-opening provided by other religious leaders or institutions, in adopting a plan for the County’s move into full Phase 1 Reopening and, when appropriate, into Phase 2,” for Howard County, Peterson said.

Mary Ellen Russell, archdiocesan spokesperson, said the archdiocese would continue working with all local jurisdictions. “We are very pleased to hear that Howard County will be lifting its restrictions on faith institutions regarding food consumption.

“We are grateful to County Executive Ball and his team for working closely with our community and many others to ensure the health and safety of all while respecting essential elements of our faith traditions. These are unchartered waters for all in leadership, and it is essential that we continue to work together for the common good,” Russell said.

Earlier in the week, the archdiocese had released guidelines for Phase II for beginning again the celebration of public Masses where appropriate.

Parishes will be allowed to celebrate Masses beginning this weekend at one-third of capacity only if the local jurisdiction is allowing religious services for more than 10 people and the parish has taken all the precautions necessary for sanitizing and maintaining social distance.

As of May 28, five counties in the archdiocese allowed larger celebrations. About 20 percent of the parishes in the archdiocese are expected to celebrate public Masses May 30-31.

Parishes are not required to celebrate public Masses – even if the conditions are met – if the pastor determines the parish is not ready to do so.

Since Howard County is one of several jurisdictions in the state that are not allowing religious gatherings of more than 10 people, parishes there could not celebrate public Masses, but could still have wedding or funeral Masses with a maximum of 10 people in attendance, according to the archdiocesan guidelines. However, under the original Howard County order, Communion could not be distributed at such Masses.

Before the county issued the order, Lisa Sliker, parish administrator of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Ellicott City, sent a letter to the county executive on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the seven parishes in Howard County. The letter to Ball offered to work with the county to develop a protocol for reopening houses of worship, similar to a plan for reopening manufacturing sites in the county.

“Under Archbishop (William E.) Lori and his leadership team, our local parishes have clear, comprehensive guidelines, proving even more stringent than the directives offered by Governor (Larry) Hogan,” Sliker’s letter said. “Our plans and approach are methodical, consistent, yet remain flexible, placing the health and well-being of every person stepping on to our campus at the center of each decision.”

Sliker included the archdiocese’s Phase I guidelines at the time.

She said she received a response from county officials that the county is “blessed to have partnerships with faith leaders.” But Sliker also noted that when the county issued separate posters for houses of worship and barber shops/hair salons in accord with the executive order, the ones for houses of worship had the restriction about distribution and consumption of food, but the hair salons did not. When she usually visits her hair salon, she is offered a cup of tea, so it would be inconsistent for those places of business to continue to allow consumption of food or beverage on site when churches – where such consumption is part of the worship service – could not.

The May 27 archdiocesan statement said that upon learning of the executive order, officials of the archdiocese had shared its Phase II guidelines for distribution of Communion with the county and expressed “our own serious concerns about their recent guidance preventing Catholic churches in Howard County from distributing Communion.

“While we recognize and value the urgent desire to guard the health and safety of local communities that is guiding the decisions of our government leaders, we are committed to engaging in dialogue with them to work together toward a policy going forward that balances the need for free expression of religious faith and the public’s health and safety interests,” the archdiocesan statement said.

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Christopher Gunty

Christopher Gunty

A Chicago-area native, Christopher Gunty is associate publisher/editor of The Catholic Review and CEO of its parent publishing company, The Cathedral Foundation/CR Media.

He has spent his whole professional career in Catholic journalism as a writer, photographer, editor, circulation manager and associate publisher. He spent four years with The Chicago Catholic; 19 years as founding editor and associate publisher of The Catholic Sun in Phoenix, Ariz.; and six years at The Florida Catholic. In July 2009, he came to Baltimore to lead The Cathedral Foundation.

Chris served as president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada from 1996 to 1998, and has traveled extensively learning about and reporting on the work of the church, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Haiti, Poland, Italy, Germany and finally in 2010 visited the Holy Land for the first time.