Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese has announced a four-phase plan for reopening the diocese’s churches.

The diocese suspended public Masses on March 17, and ordered all church facilities shut on April 1 in responce to COVID-19 mitigation efforts

The bishop’s plan begins Saturday, when churches will be open only for private prayer, with seating restrictions to provide safe distances. Masks must be worn in all churches and other safety precautions must be followed.

It is important to note that this first step does not include the celebration of public Masses and other sacraments. Priests will continue to celebrate Mass privately.

The second, third, and fourth phases involve celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, distributing Holy Communion outside of Mass, and eventually resuming the celebration of public Masses.

Baptisms, weddings, and funerals may be celebrated with all social distancing and other precautions remaining in effect. Parishioners may contact pastors for specific information.

Tony DeGol, secretary of communications for the diocese, noted in a news release that, “Although much still needs to happen before truly returning to the normal life of the church, today’s announcement that parishes may reopen their doors and the faithful may return for private prayer is a great first step. As we continue to move forward, we ask for everyone’s patience and understanding. “

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