New Executive Order on Religious Gatherings Brings Little Change for Maine Catholics

PORTLAND---Governor Janet Mills’ new executive order promising expanded gathering limits at Maine’s Catholic churches is not helpful to Maine Catholics who have diligently followed each of the protocols put in place regarding religious gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

The executive order calls for five people per 1,000 square feet of space or up to 50 people, whichever is greater. Of Maine’s 141 Catholic churches, less than 10 will see an increase from the current capacity levels despite many worship spaces exceeding 20,000 square feet.

“This ruling is unacceptable and does nothing to provide relief to our parishes and parishioners. Many Maine Catholics who were frustrated by the previous limits are now perplexed and upset. The governor must reconsider this and go to a percentage model,” said Bishop Robert Deeley. “Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and other states have been and continue to be at 50% capacity for worship services. Over 30 states have no capacity restrictions for worship. We have asked for even 25%, but the governor’s office will not engage in a discussion on why that makes sense. This ruling, though sold as an ‘expansion,’ provides no real advance for the vast majority of the state.”

Since June of 2020, the Diocese of Portland successfully has held public Masses in Maine churches with restrictions and safeguards in place. In that time, no outbreaks have been traced to Catholic churches in Maine over the course of more than 20,000 Masses.

“We have complied with the protocols and rules put into place and, in many cases, have enforced even stricter safeguards in our churches to ensure the safety of parishioners and the wider community,” said the bishop. “It is difficult to understand the state’s position when we have shown that we can successfully operate our churches and schools, which offer five days of in-person learning per week.”

Ash Wednesday on February 17 marked the start of Lent, a period of intense spiritual renewal for Christians who prepare to celebrate the commemoration of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.

“To watch as Catholics are stopped from entering some of our churches, with capacities over 1,000, because they are the 51st and 52nd person is not right, particularly during Lent,” said Bishop Deeley. “The commitment of the faithful and our parish staff members to ensure safety at Masses has been heroic, and our worship spaces are large enough to allow us to safely accommodate more people. Not having daily and weekly access to the Eucharist, the very presence of Christ, has been a great hardship for thousands of Maine Catholics, particularly when our neighboring states are allowed to provide this opportunity. Our parishioners have suffered enough. We ask that the governor consider the mental and spiritual needs of Mainers, in addition to her other considerations.”