As state and municipal officials prepare to relax COVID restrictions, the Philadelphia Archdiocese is set to do the same at Mass and other sacramental celebrations — although with slightly different timelines for suburban and city parishes.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health will lift COVID mitigation orders, except masking, effective May 31. The masking order itself will be rolled back when 70% of the state’s adults have been fully vaccinated.

The state’s current guidelines on masking mirror those of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which permit fully vaccinated persons to engage in some activities mask-free.

Philadelphia will ease precautions on June 11, with acting health commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole announcing today, May 19 that masks will no longer be required outdoors — either for vaccinated or unvaccinated people — as of this Friday.

The city will review updated COVID data the week of June 6 and, if the numbers are favorable, allow fully vaccinated people to go unmasked inside most gathering spaces.

Those who are not fully vaccinated “should continue to wear masks around others,” said Dr. Bettigole, speaking to news outlets.

With the archdiocese spanning five counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the variance between the May 31 and June 11 phases “creates a little bit of confusion,” admitted Father Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship and rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

Parishes should “respect these dates,” Father Gill stressed as he provided modified liturgical directives during a webinar Wednesday morning with clergy and pastoral leaders.

Following state guidelines, archdiocesan parishes in the suburban counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery will be “free to lift all building sanitation, social distancing and capacity restrictions on May 31,” said Father Gill.

Parishes within Philadelphia County “will continue to observe these same restrictions until Friday, June 11,” he said.

After those junctures, hard surfaces in church buildings need not be sanitized in the vigorous manner most parishes adopted throughout the pandemic. Occupancy can be extended to “100% capacity,” said Father Gill, and “all signs and labels suggesting distancing can be removed.”

However, personal sanitation should continue to be observed, he said, and people should be “mindful of washing their hands, staying home if they are sick, and not unnecessarily interacting with others.”

Choirs, hymnals and worship aids may be implemented “without any restrictions,” according to the latest directives, and holy water may be reintroduced since “most evidence suggests the virus does not live in the water,” said Father Gill.

However, the distribution of the precious Blood “continues to be suspended until further notice,” along with the sign of peace, he said — and alternate forms of the gesture, such as “waving, using the peace hand gesture, and blowing kisses” are to be avoided.

Catholics “are free to receive holy Communion in the hand or on the tongue without stigma,” said Father Gill, and the mode of reception — along with face masks, or lack thereof — should not become a point of contention in parishes, he emphasized.

There will be “no vaccination checkpoints when people come to Mass (or) holy Communion, or participate in any other sacred liturgy in a church,” he added.

Webinar co-host Meghan Cokeley, director of the archdiocesan Office for the New Evangelization, said church teaching “is very clear that vaccinations are a matter of conscience … and cannot be mandated.”

She noted an extensive list of resources on such teaching is available on the archdiocesan Arise website, which has been a hub for pastoral and liturgical guidance throughout the pandemic.

At present, “faithful continue to be dispensed” from attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation “until further notice,” said Father Gill, as Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops are working to identify “a moment when it seems the majority of people can … assemble for Mass without a majority of concerns.”

“Several weeks’ notice will be provided” before the obligation is reinstated, he said, and even thereafter, people who are seriously sick or caring for someone who is sick will remain legitimately excused.

But with “a return to the typical celebration of the sacred liturgy” in view, parishes should prepare for in-person worship with a new fervor, he added.

While livestreamed liturgies have garnered thousands of views throughout the pandemic, “numbers have plummeted over the last few weeks,” said Father Gill, and pastors “need to look at weaning away” from such broadcasts in favor of in-person worship, which he described as “irreplaceable.”

Throughout the summer, a new archdiocesan initiative entitled “Nothing Compares to Being There” will provide resources for parishes to encourage faithful back to the pews — particularly worshipers who had been attending prior to the onset of COVID, but who have yet to come back to church.

The “prudent and cautious” approach taken by the archdiocese in response to the pandemic should not obscure the fact that “the whole experience (of Mass) is incarnational,” said Father Gill. “The commandment of Jesus (is) to eat his Body and drink his Blood in person.”

“Everyone has tasted that deficit of when you’re not physically present” for major events such as weddings and funerals, said Cokeley.

That natural knowledge takes on “supernatural value” with regard to the Mass, she said, citing Jesus’ words in Luke 22:15, “I have greatly desired to eat this supper with you.”