By Tony Gutiérrez
Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson suspended all public worship effective July 1 because of concerns about the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The bishop made the decision after reviewing concerns echoed by Governor Doug Ducey and other civic leaders and being consulted by diocesan leadership. The suspension is set for approximately four weeks, but it could be shorter or longer depending on new information.
“When the pandemic began I stressed that a primary factor on reopening would be the ability of our hospitals and medical personnel to respond adequately to the sick,” Bishop Weisenburger said in a statement published on the diocesan website.
“Members of the medical community — who daily place themselves at great risk to serve us — are now telling us that we are at a crisis point. I believe that we owe it these noble men and women to do our part in bringing the pandemic under control.”
Arizona is considered a hotspot and has been referenced across the nation for its substantial spike in Covid-19 cases. As of July 1, there were 79,399 confirmed cases in the state, with 1,645 deaths.
Ducey issued an executive order June 29 prohibiting large gatherings, ceasing the issuance of new special event licenses and pausing the operations of bars, gyms, movie theaters, waterparks and tubing rentals. Another executive order delays the first day of school for in-person learning until Aug. 17, with the option for schools to conduct distance learning.
“Remember, you are safer at home,” Ducey said in a press briefing that day. “The virus is widespread, so if you don’t need to go out, don’t go out.”
In his statement, Bishop Weisenburger encouraged the faithful to join their pastors for live-streamed Masses or to participate in the Mass he celebrates weekly via the diocesan website.
“The protocols we instituted for our parishes at the time of our reopening were sensible, thorough, and implemented with care and sensitivity,” the bishop said. “When we are able to open up once again, these protocols will be reinstated.”
In the meantime, pastors will arrange for an outdoor distribution of Holy Communion after parishioners participated in a live-streamed Mass. Only outdoor Confessions will be heard and the only public Masses will be funerals and weddings, and with a limit of 10 attendees.
“Let us pray that this suspension is brief and that we can soon be in one another’s company,” the bishop exhorted. “Let us also be unified in our resolve to lead the way in battling this pandemic. The witness and example of our lives and the intensity of our prayers will surely help to heal the world.”
On June 17, Ducey issued another order allowing local governments to implement enhanced mitigation measures, such as mask-wearing mandates. A week later, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix asked via a video message that all parishioners to wear masks, regardless of whether their local municipalities required them.
“Please wear a face mask in a spirit of care for your fellow parishioners,” Bishop Olmsted said. “We wish we could rely on the Angels to guard us without our own cooperation. But holiness does not work that way.”
Face masks when used in tandem with proper physical distancing and good hygiene, he said, help reduce the spread of this deadly virus.
“I know this may be a burden for some but, keeping in mind what is best for the common good, let us offer it up as a loving sacrifice to God.”
Recently, Fr. Rafael Umaña, parochial vicar at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, tested positive for COVID-19. While Bishop Olmsted and cathedral rector Very Rev. John Lankeit both tested negative for the virus, they are in self-isolation. While other priests will continue to celebrate the weekly live-streamed Mass from the cathedral, all other liturgies have been canceled, as well as distribution of Holy Communion after the live-stream.