As you know, we are all living through challenging and unprecedented times. Today alone, an additional 693 people in our Commonwealth tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 4,087 individuals. The Pennsylvania Department of Health also reported 11 new deaths, bringing the statewide total to 48. These numbers are increasing dramatically each day. Governor Tom Wolf also announced today that all Pennsylvania schools will remain closed until further notice.

On Friday, March 27, 2020, Governor Wolf issued “stay-at-home” orders for several more counties in the territory of the Diocese of Scranton. To date, five of our 11 counties – Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike and Wayne – are now subject to significant restrictions regarding movement outside of the home. On Sunday, March 29, President Trump also extended his social distancing guidelines to April 30, 2020.

While the Diocese of Scranton covers a large geographic area and the impact of the coronavirus spread is currently uneven, particularly between the Diocese’s most eastern and western counties, I am providing you with updated directives for church access and the availability of clergy and staff. These updated directives are issued with the understanding that while Governor Wolf continues to regard faith based entities as “life-sustaining,” we must continually do our part in safeguarding the people entrusted to our care as well as ourselves.

To this end, Bishop Bambera offers the following directives:

  1. Access to Churches for private, individual prayer:
  • At this time, the decision to maintain access to a parish Church remains a decision of the Pastor or the Parish Life Coordinator.
  • Some Churches, particularly in the eastern region of our Diocese, have already opted to close their doors completely. In such instances, Bishop Bambera will support these decisions.
  • Pastors and Parish Life Coordinators who have chosen to maintain access may continue to do so at this time but must regularly assess the usage by members of the faithful. Care must be taken to cordon off areas where the faithful can pray in order to facilitate daily sanitization. In addition to sanitization, signage must remind parishioners of CDC directives regarding hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer as well as the maximum number of individuals who can gather at one time (10 or less). If a Church is unable to reasonably sanitize those areas frequented by parishioners as well as door handles, etc., or maintain CDC authorized numbers of visitors for prayer, it should be closed immediately.
  1. All public adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Hours, devotional prayers and processions, indoors or outdoors, are suspended. It has been brought to my attention that a number of parishes continue to defy federal, state and diocesan directives by inviting parishioners to gather for particular prayer opportunities. Such gatherings are to cease immediately. Moreover, “private masses” should not include members of the parish who may be present in the Church for individual private prayer.
  1. Funerals:
  • No funeral Masses or services, inclusive of those at funeral homes, are to be conducted. Priests, Deacons and Parish Life Coordinators may conduct grave-side burial services when appropriate for immediate family members only, mindful of the CDC guidelines for public gatherings.
  • Provisions are to be made for the celebration of Memorial Masses after the current healthcare crisis subsides.
  1. Sacrament of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick:
  • All public gatherings for the celebration of Confessions or the Anointing of the Sick, indoors or outdoors, are suspended.
  • In the gravest circumstances, priests may make themselves available for these sacraments, taking care to follow CDC guidelines for personal protection.
  • The faithful are encouraged to follow the directives of the Holy See regarding perfect contrition that have been communicated to you in our regular updates.
  1. Sacrament of Baptism: The celebration of Baptism is to be suspended for the health and safety of all. In case of emergency (danger of death), the sacrament may be administered.
  1. Sacrament of Matrimony: All weddings scheduled in the Diocese of Scranton are to be postponed until further notice. While churches may “hold open” the date of a scheduled wedding, whether the sacrament can be celebrated on that date will depend entirely on whether the restrictions have been lifted. Priests, Deacons and Parish Life Coordinators are encouraged to speak to each couple and share this information with them and if necessary assist them in the rescheduling of the wedding.
  1. Holy Week:
  • All directives regarding the celebration of Holy Week liturgies released on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 remain in place, with the following exception.
  • The distribution of palms on Palm Sunday is prohibited. While time honored and appreciated by many members of the faithful, the distribution of palms in any way risks the unnecessary spread of the coronavirus.

While these directives will no doubt further stretch you and many of your people, they are offered following a significant amount of consultation with our Deans, Episcopal Vicars and a number of other pastors who have shared their concerns during the past few days. Sadly, over the weekend, we learned of the first virus-related death of a priest from the Diocese of Brooklyn. Numerous priests and at least one bishop in the United States have tested positive for the virus. These directives are being enacted for the sole purpose of keeping you and your people as safe as possible.

May God bless and sustain you and your families during these challenging times.  Keep safe and well.