SAN JUAN — Bishop Daniel E. Flores announced Wednesday evening that the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville has suspended Masses until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many other religious groups in the Rio Grande Valley have also suspended services and gatherings.
Catholic festivals, religious education and retreat programs will also be suspended indefinitely, the bishop said, although church sacraments will continue under certain constraints.
“These severe measures are taken with great sorrow, but it is important to keep in mind that they are necessary, in my judgment and the judgment of those whom I have consulted, for the sake of protecting lives, especially the lives of our elderly in the community and those who suffer illnesses that make them vulnerable to the virus,” Flores said.
Flores said that funerals, weddings and other church sacraments will still be performed with pandemic protocols in place.
“I want to assure people that despite the fact that the public celebration of the Mass is being suspended until further notice, that funerals especially, and confession, the anointing of the sick, the other sacramental celebrations will be celebrated in our churches because it’s the way we take care of our people,” he said. “There will be specific conditions under which this is done in order to safeguard how this is done. I will be sending out directives to all of the pastors and all of the priests here in the diocese and all of the faithful, so they’re aware of how this happens. I’m asking people to be patient and to help one another.”
Funeral services, Flores said, will probably be limited to a burial service with the immediate family.
“The funeral homes are helping us organize this,” he said.
According to Flores, the diocese is not sure when restrictions will be lifted and they could affect Easter celebrations.
“Our churches for the foreseeable future will not be open to the public,” he said. “This is very difficult.”
Despite lacking congregations, Mass will still be celebrated daily in the Valley’s Catholic churches.
“The priests of the diocese will continue to celebrate Mass daily and on Sundays, only without the attendance of the faithful. This is very important for Catholics to realize that the mystery of the Mass, the sacrifice of Christ, will continue to be celebrated in our churches,” he said.
Flores acknowledged that the diocese is likely to suffer from the economic impact of the contagion.
“We can only anticipate that it will have a major impact. I mean, some of our parishes are very poor and basically live from week to week to pay the electric bill,” he said. “The economic impact is not only and even primarily on the parish churches. Families are going to experience somebody losing their job, at least temporarily, and that’s a great preoccupation. I mean, that’s going to affect the whole Valley.”
Modern technology may make the suspension more bearable for the church’s flock, Flores said. Churches in the diocese are looking into streaming masses online and using the internet to stay united.
“I’m very encouraged by the fact that a great number of our parishes already have the livestreaming capacity and that’s an important way to help people stay connected to their churches,” he said.
The church would be asking local parishes to keep an eye on at-risk members of their community during the pandemic, Flores said.
“I’m asking the parishes to be taking measures locally to in some way assist those who are without assistance, the vulnerable, the elderly, those who may not have easy access to the grocery store,” he said.
Flores said suspension of Mass was uncommon but not unprecedented in the church’s history: “In the history of the church, there have been similar circumstances, plagues and situations. The church has rarely suspended Masses, but she has in her history for a variety of historical reasons. This is uncharted territory, but every day is unchartered territory.”
Flores encouraged the Valley’s Catholics to pray and stay positive.
“The Lord will not be away forever, he rises, and we will have the Mass again in our public churches,” he said.