Unmasking Faith: Churches lifting, easing mask restrictions

Published 4:00 am Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Catholic Diocese of Jackson and the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi have lifted the mask mandates for masses and services.

In a May 18 letter to Catholics served by the Diocese of Jackson, Bishop Joseph Kopacz said he was lifting the mask mandate issued in March 2020, but included some cases where masks should be considered.

“Masks are encouraged for those who are not vaccinated and for children and youth under 16 years old, but the families and the individuals may make the decision to use masks considering the risks involved,” Kopacz wrote. “Those individuals who have compromised immune systems and other underlying health conditions may choose to still wear masks and are encouraged to do so. The pastors and lay ecclesial ministers should encourage members of the parish to make a decision to wear or not wear a mask at Mass through a prayerful decision and through consideration of the common good of the community.”

He added Catholics should continue to practice social distancing of 3 feet during mass, and all church pews can be used. Kopacz said the dispensation from attending mass issued in March will be lifted on June 6.

“The bishop’s mandate as it stands is: anyone who has been vaccinated is free not to wear a mask,” said the Rev. Rusty Vincent, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church. “We do encourage those who have not been vaccinated or (are) under 16 who cannot get vaccinated to wear a mask.”

He said Eucharistic ministers giving out Communion must still wear masks.

Not having to wear masks, Vincent said, will be interesting.

“Since the last year, we made sure everyone wore their mask,” he said. “It’s kind of exciting seeing people’s faces again and seeing those faces I haven’t seen in a while because they’ve had their masks on.

“We realize people are going to be cautious, but it’s exciting to be able to have that ability now to see that,” he said.

The Rt. Rev. Brian Seage, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, announced the mask mandate was being lifted in a May 14 letter to churches. In the letter, Seage announced masks and social distancing during services and other events will not be required for church members who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

“The CDC still recommends that people that are not fully vaccinated wear masks when gathering indoors, singing indoors or for crowded outdoor events,” Seage wrote.

“What he has told us is that we can relax social distancing and the masks,” said the Rev. Sam Godfrey, rector of Christ Episcopal Church. “They do still recommend that if you have not been vaccinated that you wear a mask.”

He said the church congregation recently went without masks for the first time since March 2020 when Seage visited the church.

“Our 8 o’clock (Sunday) service is back in the downstairs chapel,” Godfrey said. “We hadn’t used it in more than a year. We are very excited about it.”

The Rev. Andy Andrews, the rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, called Seage’s news “Wonderful; so good.”

“There’s no restrictions on seating, if you’re vaccinated you don’t have to wear a mask, congregational singing; it’s close to a return before March 2019,” he said.

“The spirit (of the church) you can tell we’ve been through a valley and now, (it’s) just remarkable how good it feels,” Andrews said.

The Mississippi United Methodist Conference has not issued an updated policy on the mask mandate.

Dr. Bob Ford of Vicksburg, a member of the Methodist Conference’s Pandemic Task Force, said the Centers for Disease Control announced the changes in its mask policy after the task force met. He said the task force was expected to meet next week. 

“We have always recommended that people follow the CDC guidelines,” he said. “We still have cases in Warren County; we’re not out of the pandemic yet. It’s abated a lot, but it’s not gone.  

“We just urge a cautious approach of continuing the policies that have gotten us to this point so far. We’re just being conservative in our approach.”

Dr. Matt Buckles, pastor of First Baptist Church said the church has followed the city’s mandate. When Mayor George Flaggs Jr. lifted the city’s mask mandate on May 14, he said, so did the church.

“We’ve had two Sundays, May 16 and 23, we have had not required masks on the entry of the building,” he said. “That has worked very well for us; our church has handled it well.”

Whether to wear a mask, Buckles said, will be an individual decision.

“We’ve left it at that, we have some who will still wear a mask, maybe health issues, maybe a precaution but it’s strictly been an individual’s decision.

“We continue to provide masks and sanitizer and if people want to use it on entering the building but we don’t require it; it’s an individual’s decision,” Buckles said.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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