CNS photo/Sam Lucero
CNS photo/Sam Lucero
" Our schools have developed plans for the continuity of instruction in the event of a prolonged closure. Your school's principal and teachers will keep you informed of specific plans for your school. " JoAnn Tier superintendent of Catholic schools
Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., announced a series of measures March 12 and 13 aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the parishes and schools of the four-county Diocese of Trenton.    

On March 12, the Bishop issued a dispensation from the obligation of attending weekend/Sunday Mass for the members of his flock in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties.  He stipulated, however, that the churches will still be open; weekend Masses will be celebrated as regularly scheduled, and the Sacrament of Penance (Confession) should also remain available.

The following day, Bishop O’Connell announced that the 35 Catholic schools and nearly 100 religious education programs in the Diocese will shut down from March 16 through 27 to prevent the spread of the virus among the students and teachers, and to allow for a cleaning and disinfecting process to be conducted in all facilities. 

According to diocesan officials, the decision to close will keep more than 14,000 students and nearly 1,500 faculty and staff members home from all diocesan and parish-run schools, as well as several independent Catholic schools. Provisions have been made for students to participate in online learning during the closures.

Some 42,000 children will be impacted by the suspension of parish religious education classes, along with 3,200 of their mostly volunteer catechists.  Parish efforts are underway to provide home-based learning for these children, particularly those in a sacramental preparation year.

The Diocese also announced March 13 that the Chancery will suspend normal operations in its Lawrenceville site, migrating most of its 85 staff members to a work-from-home status from March 16 to 20.   A message sent to all staff by diocesan officials stated, “It is important to note that there are no reported cases of COVID-19 among the Chancery staff.”

However, the message noted, that the decision to close the Chancery was “in support of the efforts to limit large gatherings, and out of an abundance of caution.” A return to the office is slated for March 23, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.

Mass attendance, liturgical instructions

In his March 12 message announcing the dispensation and status of the churches, Bishop O’Connell wrote: “The Governor of New Jersey is recommending – not mandating – that events anticipating crowds of 250-plus people be canceled due to the potential spread of the coronavirus.”

He stated, “I am NOT instructing that parish churches be closed or weekend Masses be canceled in the Diocese of Trenton.”  The Bishop stressed that previous instructions issued regarding liturgical practices at Mass remain in effect.  (Instructions issued March 4 suspending the use of Communion from the Chalice and the handshake during the Sign of Peace.)

The Bishop further emphasized, “Those who are feeling sick or are in high risk groups should not celebrate or attend Mass and should stay home.”

The statement continues, “At the same time, I am granting a DISPENSATION from the OBLIGATION to attend weekend/Sunday Mass to all the Catholic faithful until further notice. Mass will still be offered in parishes for those who choose or who are able to attend. Otherwise, I recommend that the faithful pray and take advantage of/participate in Holy Mass that is broadcast on television.”

Bishop O’Connell suggested other measures to protect against spreading the virus within the parish communities. He said, “Pastors should consider canceling other large gatherings of the faithful in parish churches or venues out of an abundance of caution. Families should be asked to limit attendance at other sacramental celebrations (e.g., Baptism, Confirmation) to immediate family only.

“In light of the endurance of the virus on frequently touched surfaces – doors, pews, holy water fonts, etc. – please consider frequent, proper cleaning of these surfaces in our churches.”

The Bishop concluded by saying, “I simply instruct pastors and priests to use the very best judgment possible and to keep informed of any developments as they arise.”

Suspended classes, canceled events

In a March 13 letter to parents, JoAnn Tier, superintendent of Catholic schools, advised that extracurricular activities and community gatherings are canceled or postponed until further notice. This includes athletic practices and competitions. Events scheduled for later this year will be evaluated based on the most current information available.

Tier writes, “Our schools have developed plans for the continuity of instruction in the event of a prolonged closure. Your school's principal and teachers will keep you informed of specific plans for your school.”

Several independent Catholic schools located in the Diocese also announced similar steps this week, preparing to close their doors for a number of weeks and move to an online instruction platform. 

As of this writing, one Diocese-sponsored event, “Kerygma – An encounter with Jesus Christ” retreat, set for March 15 and March 21 -- will be cancelled.

For updates on announcements, cancellations and available resources, the faithful are encouraged to check their local parish and school websites, and to check in regularly at dioceseoftrenton.org/coronavirus and the Diocese’s social media outlets.