My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This past May 18 was the 100th birthday of St. Pope John Paul II. He had a profound influence on my priesthood and my life as a bishop. He was elected pope on Oct. 16, 1978, just five months after I was ordained a priest. He would be the pope for the next 26 ½ years of my life as a priest and as bishop.
It was Pope John Paul II who appointed me to be a bishop on Jan. 24, 2003. I was present at St. Peter’s Basilica when he was canonized a saint on April 27, 2014. It is no small thing for me to realize that I was appointed bishop by a saint! It is also fitting, because the universal call to holiness was a major theme of his pontificate, as he frequently reminded us that we are all called to be saints.
Meals were an important part of the life of Pope John Paul II. Meals were not just a time to eat, but to be with people, as he had guests for almost every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Of course, the most important meal for him, as it should be for us, was the eucharistic meal, and I had the privilege of concelebrating with him on several occasions both at St. Peter’s Basilica and in his private chapel at the Vatican.
So, it was fitting that on the weekend before his birthday the faithful of our diocese were finally able to return to receiving holy Communion after their long fast for almost two months.
When we receive holy Communion, we are not just nurturing our own personal relationship with Christ and his Father, but through the gift of the Eucharist we are able to recognize that we are united with all our brothers and sisters who share in this Communion and indeed with those who have gone before us in the hope of eternal life.
The Catholic faith is a tangible, concrete faith with sacramental signs that reflect and make manifest spiritual realities. Our faith cannot be practiced freely without physical participation in the sacraments. Also, our faith is communal, not private, and its proper expression requires the physical gathering of the community. For over two months, out of concern for the common good, I directed that we as a diocese would make the willing sacrifice to forego our constitutional right to free assembly and the full exercise of our religion. Accordingly, I asked our Catholic faithful to accept this temporary inability to receive holy Communion in a positive spirit as a spiritual fast.
Earlier this month, the Illinois General Assembly showed the proper, reasonable, and measured approach to living and working with the coronavirus pandemic while gathering in a crowd of hundreds of legislators and staff to do their work, with proper precautionary measures and safe distancing. They have shown our community the way forward, in their actions, using measures to maintain proper safe distances and implement sanitary precautions, while conducting their business. Following their example, the six Catholic dioceses in Illinois are proceeding with plans, beginning sometime in June, to return to the proper practice of our faith, including public celebrations of Mass, using carefully designed safe distancing and sanitary precautions, similar to those employed by the legislature.
The diocese remains committed to protecting the common good by proceeding with the practice of our religion with all due caution. The diocese will be following specific guidelines, derived from thoroughly researched work by a team of national health experts and liturgical experts. These guidelines include specific parameters for safe distancing and sanitary precautions. The diocese is also conducting mandatory training on these guidelines for all parishes. Given the diversity of parish congregation sizes and the physical layout and capacity of worship spaces, specific plans will be designed by individual parishes, using guidelines published by the diocese. Prior to celebrating any public liturgies, each parish will be required to submit its plan to diocesan staff for review and the identified parish re-opening team will be required to attend the web-based training offered by the diocese.
During this time, the parishes are not obligated to offer public Mass, especially if they determine they are unable to celebrate liturgies properly in accord with the established guidelines. My dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation will continue until further notice. Further, diocesan and parish plans may be reevaluated and adjusted if evidence suggests concerns of reemerging infections.
As we take these steps to returning to the celebration of holy Mass with people in the pews, in addition to having already allowed for people to return to holy Communion in their parishes, I gave permission for pastors to administer the sacraments of initiation to those recently elected to the Easter sacraments, doing so outside the Easter Vigil at a time to be conveniently arranged with the Elect, while maintaining the safe distancing requirements.
More recently, I delegated pastors and parochial administrators the faculty to administer the sacrament of confirmation to children who were scheduled to have been confirmed by me this year, giving priority to those children who recently reached the use of reason, that is, those in about third grade, who were to have been fully initiated into the church with the reception of confirmation and first Eucharist this past spring.
After such children have been confirmed and made their first holy Communion, pastors may confirm other children and adults who previously have received their first holy Communion but have not yet been confirmed, giving priority to those finishing eighth grade this spring or who are still in high school. If the parish is small enough, students completing fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade may also be confirmed, but if the parish is too large for the pastor to do them all within this calendar year, it may be necessary to delay them until next year.
Although the ordinary minister of confirmation is the bishop, the extraordinary nature of the novel coronavirus pandemic necessitates that an exception be made at this time for the spiritual benefit of those awaiting the reception of these sacraments, so that they may not be deprived of these sacramental graces any longer. Moreover, delegating pastors and parochial administrators the faculty to confirm during this time respects the restored order for the sacraments of initiation that we have begun implementing in our diocese as adopted at our fourth diocesan synod in 2017.
Recognizing that some candidates for confirmation and/or their parents may want to have the sacrament administered to them by the bishop rather than by the pastor, their wishes should be respected and their names forwarded to my office to schedule a time for them to receive confirmation and first Eucharist from me.
With God’s grace, we will return fully to the practice of our faith as Our Lord intended.
May God give us this grace. Amen.