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Hebda: Pastoral need, not politics, and religious liberty prompt opening

Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis speaks to media May 21, 2020, outside the Archdiocesan Catholic Center in St. Paul about the Minnesota bishops' decision to move forward May 26 with Masses at one-third church capacity, despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order restricting faith-based gatherings to 10 people. Standing behind the archbishop is Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens. (CNS photo/Tom Halden, The Catholic Spirit)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- Representing the bishops of Minnesota, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis met with Gov. Tim Walz May 21 and they met again May 22 following the bishops' decision to resume public Masses at one-third capacity despite the governor's executive order capping faith-based gatherings at 10 people due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the May 21 meeting, Archbishop Hebda and President Lucas Woodford, president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Minnesota South District, were able to explain why they see expanding the allowance as "an urgent need," Archbishop Hebda said.

"It was a very good discussion, a frank discussion where the governor explained his rationale for delaying the opening of churches for in-person worship," he told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper, afterward.

He's grateful they had a chance to have that discussion, he said, and hopes Walz changes his executive order. If the governor doesn't, the Catholic bishops still plan to begin holding Masses at one-third church capacity May 26 ahead of Pentecost Sunday, May 31, Archbishop Hebda said.

"The actions that the bishops took are in response to our perception of our faithful's hunger and their needs," he said. "It's not a political decision. It's purely a pastoral decision that we have the responsibility, a weighty responsibility as pastors, of feeding our flocks. And so we have to decide how best to do that. And as we look at the situation now, we think the best way to do that is by allowing people to choose to come back to the Eucharist."

Minnesota's Catholic bishops and the Lutheran Church Missouri Minnesota South District, which encompasses the southern part of the state, both announced May 20 plans to resume larger public worship services following rigorous health and safety protocols that mitigate risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

Those protocols include requiring 6-foot social distancing among people not of the same household, disinfecting the church before and after worship, and removing common-touch items from the worship space. They also have developed protocols around the distribution of Communion.

In Washington, President Donald Trump May 22 made a surprise midday announcement saying he is "identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogues and mosques as essential places that provide essential services."

Trump said governors in all states must open houses of worship during the Memorial Day weekend. News reports said he has been pushing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue guidance specific to places of worship.

In Minnesota, the Catholic bishops and Lutheran leaders shared their plan for expanding worship with the Walz administration May 8, as the governor prepared to lift the state's stay-at-home order.

When the new executive order, Stay Safe Minnesota, announced May 13, did not expand the current 10-person worship restrictions, Archbishop Hebda publicly expressed his disappointment and contacted the administration again.

The bishops and other faith leaders had meetings with the Walz administration May 18 and May 19. On May 20, Walz and other state officials outlined the next steps of the Stay Safe Minnesota plan, which incrementally expanded capacity allowances for faith-based gatherings, but did not include a concrete timeline.

Meanwhile, restaurants, bars, malls, retail stores, salons and tattoo parlors have been green-lighted to reopen with certain restrictions. Restaurants, for example, are permitted to open June 1 for outdoor dining for 50 people, socially distanced.

The bishops' decision to move forward with public worship despite Walz's order is a matter of religious liberty, they said. In a May 20 letter to the faithful, they explained that they've taken seriously their responsibility to protect people from the virus but now believe, as other sectors of public life resume, that public worship should resume, too.

In a May 21 call with media, Archbishop Hebda and Woodford were joined by Eric Rassbach, a vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm based in Washington. Its counsel has been working with the Minnesota faith leaders.

"This is not something where the churches are saying we can do whatever we want. This is just the churches saying we want equal treatment, not special treatment, just equal treatment," Rassbach said.

Archbishop Hebda said he doesn't see the Minnesota bishops' plan as an act of defiance of the law, but rather an assertion of the rights given to them by the law. The decision should not be interpreted as a sign of disrespect for the governor's authority, he said.

"We obviously have a great respect for legitimate authority, and there is a moral obligation to obey the just law," he said. "Here the question is, where is the defiance? We are blessed to live in a country that guarantees the free exercise of religion. Because my perception ... is that perhaps those rights weren't considered in the drafting of the executive order."

In an interview with The Catholic Spirit May 21, Archbishop Hebda reiterated his appreciation for the difficulty of Walz's task. Speaking earlier in the afternoon at a news conference held at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center in St. Paul, he said the bishops are ready to work cooperatively with the governor.

"These are very challenging times, and I recognize that he has a very difficult job. We want to help all of Minnesota get through this pandemic," he said.

Reaction to the bishops' plan to move forward has been "all over the board," Archbishop Hebda said.

"Lots of people are very grateful and spoke about their great hunger for the Eucharist," he said. "And we've had other people calling really worried about whether we're moving too quickly and wanting to know how it is that we're not going to be endangering people by opening up the churches for public worship."

The bishops have made clear that each parish should only resume worship when it feels prepared to meet the health and safety protocols, which were based on practices recommended by a national group of medical experts and theologians.

The bishops also have followed guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health and sought the input of Minnesota health officials and said they would amend their protocols as more is learned about the virus.

As public Masses resume, parishes will continue livestreaming liturgies, and some parishes will begin or continue parking lot Masses. The bishops are continuing the suspension of the faithful's obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. They have also urged Catholics who are 65 and older or with medical conditions not to attend Mass at this time.

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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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