OLV COVID-19 News - Please Read!
A letter to the faithful in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown
July 15, 2021
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I recently spoke with a family who returned from a delightful vacation. Three generations of that family live in different states and this was their first time to be together since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the memories of that family vacation are the stories and photos they shared of cherished human experiences, including the birth of new children, Baptisms, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, weddings and graduations which not everyone experienced in person during the pandemic.
I have also listened to people from all over our diocese who have not been coming to Sunday Mass or receiving the Holy Eucharist since the time our churches first closed as a precaution. We have gone through a long dry spell of not encountering our Lord and each other in our churches. Thanks be to God, things are improving. With the help of vaccinations and social distancing, the dangers brought by the COVID-19 virus have diminished and our churches are open.
All of this points to the conclusion that the dispensation from the obligation to participate at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is no longer necessary. After consulting with all the Bishops of Pennsylvania who are each announcing the same directive, I hereby decree that beginning August 15, 2021, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass is ended.
There is no obligation for those who are unable to attend Mass due to a serious or chronic health condition. If you are ill or you provide care for someone who is ill and unable to attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days, there is no need for any dispensation of permission. For those who are unable to attend Mass, you are strongly encouraged to view the broadcast of the Mass on television or via the internet. Priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers may continue to bring Holy Communion to shut-ins.
During the extended time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have spoken with persons who have experienced being alienated from God, their family, friends and neighbors, and even from themselves. As a result of not being in church on Sunday, many persons described an experience in which “God’s voice is not heard, the quiet joy of love is not felt, and the desire to do good fades.” That description is given by Pope Francis in the introduction to his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. Even though he wrote it nearly 10 years ago, the message certainly fits the circumstances of so many people today.
Pope Francis reminds us that we do not have to remain in such emptiness. He says, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.” He goes on to say, “No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” And Pope Francis explains that “the Lord will not disappoint those who take the risk and take a step toward Jesus; to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”
The Lord Jesus waits for us, you and me, at his table; at the altar in your parish church which is your spiritual home. As you respond to the Lord’s invitation, you may be wondering what to expect. One person recently told me that during this time away from Church, she has had difficulty praying. She asked, “I wonder if the Lord will recognize me when we get back to church?” In thinking about that person’s concern, I thought of what Pope Francis says in The Joy of the Gospel: “Time and time again the Lord Jesus bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew.”
It is time for us, all of us, to start anew. I invite all of you to come to your place at the Lord’s table. Come back to that same pew at the same Mass time that was part of your regular Sunday routine. For so long, we went without the joy that comes from the little things of life. But the Lord tells us: “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means… Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment (Sirach 14:11, 14).
So much good and so much joy comes to us when we sit at the dinner table with family and friends. How much more awaits us when we come to the table of the Lord each Sunday where we offer praise and thanks to God, for his merciful love is without end!
The Church reminds us that we have an obligation to come every Sunday and on other important days during the year. But besides that obligation, we should not forget the vocation that we all share with each other; with our families, friends, and neighbors. It is our calling to proclaim the Gospel; with its truth about our Lord Jesus Christ and the saving power of his death and resurrection; and with all the joy and satisfaction that comes with sharing that truth with those who hunger and thirst for an encounter, or renewed encounter with God’s love.
As Pope Francis reminds us in The Joy of the Gospel that this encounter “blossoms into an enriching friendship and it liberates us from our narrowness and self-absorption,” as so many have experienced from the limits placed on us during the pandemic. And one last thought from The Joy of the Gospel. Pope Francis reminds us that through our encounter with Christ, who is the incarnation of God’s love, we become fully human.
Brothers and Sisters, the ultimate encounter with Christ for us here on earth is in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass through which we meet the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. It is time for all of us to come back to that experience. I invite everyone to assist each other in making their way back to their proper place on the Lord’s Day. And if anyone is in need of sacramental Reconciliation to assist you in coming back, the sacrament is available.
Come to the table of the Lord; the table of mercy and love. The Lord invites all of us to meet him there.
With prayers and best wishes,
Most Rev. Mark L. Bartchak
Bishop of Altoona-Johnstown
Update May 12, 2021 Bishop Mark's Updated COVID Directives
Dear OLV Parishioner,
After consultation with the Deans, the Vicar General, and Public Health Advisors, Bishop Mark has issued the following update in response to the lifting of measures that have been in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Bishop is grateful to all who have been diligent in taking the necessary precautions that have enabled Catholic schools and parish churches to remain open.
As public health officials have been advising repeatedly, wearing masks and getting vaccinated are key to keeping everyone safe and healthy. With the exception of those who are not to receive the vaccination per their physician’s direction, all are encouraged to receive the vaccine as soon as possible. Vaccination and face covering are the most important ways to win the fight against COVID-19.
On May 4, 2021, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Office announced plans to lift government issued mitigation orders, with one exception. Face coverings (masks) are still required to be worn indoors and outdoors when you are away from your home.
Per diocesan protocols issued in 2020, this mask requirement remains in effect in church settings, including attendance at Mass and other religious activities in church (e.g., confessions, adoration, novenas, etc.). As of Memorial Day, May 31, 2021, at 12:01 am, other mitigation efforts, however, may be curtailed. Thus, parishes may resume offertory processions, use hymnals and other materials, fill holy water fonts, and the like. Singing may resume, but only with Masks in place. As a result, parish choirs may not be able to resume their normal function until masks are no longer required. Confessionals and other enclosed places may be used, but only with adequate ventilation.
The announcement made by the Governor’s Office indicates that the directives regarding the use of Masks remains in effect even beyond May 31, 2021.
Bishop Mark directs, therefore, that masks must be worn at any and all indoor functions in schools, parish social halls, etc. Even if not on parish or school property, masks must also be worn at any indoor function sponsored by a parish, school or affiliated organization.
The lifting of statewide mitigation orders will allow for indoor activities (e.g. Bingo) without the physical distancing measures that have been in effect. However, participants (workers, volunteers, guests, etc.) must wear a face covering at all times during these activities.
Beginning May 31, 2021, at 12:01 am, outdoor picnics, festivals, etc. are permitted on parish property. Parish and church-related organizations (Catholic Daughters of the Americas, Knights of Columbus, parish choirs, booster clubs, etc.) may have similar activities. Whenever these activities occur outdoors, masks are not required.
However, if any part of these outdoor activities takes place indoors, masks must be worn by all. This circumstance may arise when food preparation takes place inside or a festival activity such as Bingo is held inside. Masks are required of those serving and partaking of the food at an indoor location (e.g. inside the parish hall) during a parish festival.
Planning for an outdoor festival, dance, etc. should take into account the possibility of rain. If tents are used in order to mitigate the impact of inclement weather and a large crowd congregates under a tent, it is possible that this arrangement may be construed as “indoors” and thus making the use of masks necessary.
On April 27, 2021, the PA Department of Health issued an update that should be taken into account in planning parish activities.
The Governor’s Office and the PA Department of Health have stated explicitly that the use of masks/face coverings will remain in effect until 70% of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated.
All parishes, schools, and related organizations in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown are to follow the state guidelines and directives. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic people have talked about being in this together. That care for everyone must continue in a proactive way.