Chicago area Catholics could soon be back to celebrating mass in person under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s modified stay-at-home order — on a tightly limited basis, from a safe social distance.
After a late revision to Pritzker’s extended order added a provision for “the free exercise of religion,” the local arm of the Roman Catholic Church announced Friday it is planning to resume masses limited to 10 people under guidelines recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the Archdiocese of Chicago has followed the guidance of the competent civil authorities and agencies to ensure the safety of the faithful, clergy, staff and volunteers,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “We thank Governor Pritzker for his new guidance. We are engaged in planning for the resumption of Masses and other liturgies within the CDC guidance for 10-person attendance.”
The archdiocese would provide no details on where the sparsely attended, social distanced masses will resume or when.
Asked if Catholics could attend some public masses this Sunday, an archdiocesan spokeswoman would only say, “I’ll refer you to the governor’s order or his office for more specifics.”
Other religious leaders are still grappling with how to safely reopen their doors to the faithful, while many aren’t planning on it in any form anytime soon.
Facing a federal lawsuit from a northwest Illinois church challenging the governor’s latest order, the Pritzker administration late Thursday added new language including limited religious services as examples of “essential activities” for which residents are permitted to leave their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
The new order, effective through May, says leaving home is allowed “to engage in the free exercise of religion, provided that such exercise must comply with Social Distancing Requirements and the limit on gatherings of more than 10 people in keeping with CDC guidelines for the protection of public health.”
“Religious organizations and houses of worship are encouraged to use online or drive-in services to protect the health and safety of their congregants,” according to the order.
The Chicago archdiocese, which serves 2.2 million Catholics in Lake and Cook counties, has suspended masses since March 14, with Cardinal Blase Cupich encouraging parishes to broadcast their services online. Funerals have been limited to 10 people.
A spokesman for the Joliet Diocese, which includes DuPage and Will counties, said leaders were still evaluating the new order and didn’t have any immediate plans for in-person masses.
A group of suburban parishioners had banded together as the St. Charles Borromeo Society in urging Cupich and local authorities to “open our churches for private prayer and adoration, allow outdoor Masses and/or parking lot Masses, and find ways to safely increase access to the Sacraments.”
Homer Glen organizer Lisa Bergman called the new order “a good start.”
“We’re overjoyed because that certainly was a big hurdle,” Bergman said. “I’m a little disappointed it took a tiny Protestant church [filing suit from Lena, Illinois] to do this, when we have the Catholic Church and so many voices downtown that could’ve done the same thing.
“We’re willing to take whatever we can take at this point. We’ve been cut off completely for six weeks … This can easily be expanded.”
Pritzker, during his daily coronavirus briefing, insisted his administration wasn’t caving to any outside pressure.
“All we were trying to do was to make more explicit that people do have a right to gather in groups of 10 or less. That is the case in the other orders, too. But we wanted to make it more explicit that you can worship in a group of 10 or less — as long as you’re socially distancing, to be clear,” Pritzker said.
About 40 mosques represented by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago reached a consensus last week not to reopen for services even if it was allowed under the new order, according to the council’s executive director, Abdullah Mitchell.
“In terms of worship practiced by Muslims, it’s very difficult to keep in place social distancing based on the numbers of people who attend, and then in terms of the rituals of prayer,” Mitchell said.
The Muslim Community Center of Chicago is among those broadcasting services online during the holy month of Ramadan. The Northwest Side center’s imam holds five daily prayers along with a few workers “to keep the sanctity of the mosque alive” while it’s closed to the public, center president Kamran Hussain said.
“We’ve been trying to highlight the positives [of celebrating Ramadan from home]. People get to be home with their family during the month. And we pray at night, so there is more flexibility for those long nights and days,” Hussain said.
“The real question is, when we do reopen without limitations, how is our community going to respond? Will we jump into Friday prayers with a thousand people, or are they going to be scared? What kind of limitations will we need?”
Lee Zoldan, president of the Chicago Loop Synagogue, said they “want to reopen as soon as possible, but we haven’t gotten that far yet.”
In normal times, the 550-seat sanctuary holds three services a day during the week, plus Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon services.
“We want to get as many of those going again as soon as we can, but we need to know that people are safe,” Zoldan said.
The synagogue is also evaluating how congregants will feel comfortable returning. Some have contracted the virus, including a relative of a top synagogue administrator, Zoldan said.
“We can keep them socially distanced. It’s just a matter of how our membership feels in terms of walking in the building. I think everyone understands what’s going on. People have been very respectful of what we have going on and why we’re doing it. They want to keep people safe,” Zoldan said.
“We don’t want to put people at risk. That’s our focus.”
But Rabbi David Wolkenfeld said Pritzker’s latest order wouldn’t change things at his Lake View synagogue, Anshe Sholom, where some services and studies have been maintained online during the shutdown.
“We feel that it’s still too dangerous to gather. Obviously it’s something we eagerly look forward to, and something we miss terribly,” Wolkenfeld said.
The rabbi said that while working from home with his wife and five children, he’s on the phone or computer with community members throughout the day, but “we definitely miss our very active congregation.”