Minnesota's Catholic bishops say they'll defy Walz's limits on church attendance

Walz' COVID-19 policy caps in-person attendance in houses of worship at 10

Men in robes holding a staff walk down a church aisle.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda at the Cathedral of St. Paul in September 2019. Minnesota's Roman Catholic bishops say they will allow Masses to resume next week despite Gov. Tim Walz's continued restrictions on large religious gatherings.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Updated: 5:25 p.m. May 22 | Posted: 8:16 p.m. May 20

Minnesota's Roman Catholic bishops said Wednesday that they will allow Masses to resume next week despite Gov. Tim Walz's continued prohibition on most religious gatherings.

Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda and the state's five other diocesan leaders say they're giving parishes permission to resume public Masses on May 26, just ahead of Pentecost on May 31.

In a letter, the bishops said parishes are not required to resume services, and no Catholics are obliged to attend.

Churches must follow sanitation protocols, and limit attendance to a third of seating capacity.

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The clerics noted that the dioceses voluntarily suspended public Masses before Walz issued his orders, and they've been urging him to allow larger religious gatherings in his latest executive order.

The bishops said it "defies reason" to allow malls to reopen while continuing to prohibit more than 10 people from gathering in a cathedral that can seat thousands.

Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann issued this statement in response on Wednesday night:

As the governor has said, this is a challenging situation for him personally and a challenging situation for him as a public official charged with protecting the health and safety of Minnesotans. He remains in routine communication with faith leaders across the state and understands the toll this pandemic is taking on the spiritual health of Minnesotans. Gov. Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health will be meeting with the Archdiocese this week.

Lutheran leaders from the Minnesota north and south districts of the Missouri synod, the Minnesota district of the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod as well as Evangelical Lutheran Synod, based in Mankato, Minn., also criticized the Walz administration over his COVID-19 policy. In a separate letter forwarded by the Archdiocese, the Lutherans noted the Constitutional guarantee of freedom to exercise religious belief and said the prohibition of “people from gathering together in a church regardless of its size, but allowing malls and other ‘non-critical’ businesses to open, fails to uphold that guarantee.

“We have accordingly chosen to move forward in the absence of a timeline from Gov. Walz. We cannot allow an indefinite suspension of in-person worship,” they said in the letter.

They also plan to reopen buildings for “public gatherings” on May 26, with the first Sunday services on May 31. The letter also said they recommend their churches limit attendance, sanitize spaces and practice social distancing.

Earlier in the day, Steve Grove, the state’s employment and economic development commissioner, told reporters that expanding religious services — including allowing outdoor services of up to 100 people — would be part of Minnesota’s next phase of loosening restrictions on daily life. However, he did not say when that would happen.

Walz said his administration wants to reopen houses of worship as soon as it's safe.

"I think there is a very strong sense of urgency for us to figure this piece around churches,” he said. “I say that about all business, but I do think these pieces of people's lives we need to try to get it around."

Hebda said parishes have been working to reopen safely, and elderly and vulnerable people are encouraged to continue staying home and use virtual faith resources. The archbishop said he hopes he can reach an agreement with Walz this week to allow many more people to attend Mass in person.