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Washington, D.C. Archbishop Wilton GregoryMark Wilson / Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 13, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Starting this Saturday, all public Masses are canceled in the Archdiocese of Washington indefinitely. Additionally, all of the archdiocese’s Catholic schools will be closed for two weeks, beginning next Monday.

“The State of Maryland has ordered that no public gatherings in excess of 250 people may be held until further notice. As a result of this order, Archbishop Gregory has indicated Masses open to the public, in ALL archdiocesan parishes, missions, and campus ministries will not be celebrated starting this Saturday, March 14 until further notice,” the archdiocese announced. The Archdiocese of Washington extends beyond the District of Columbia into Maryland, covering a total of five Maryland counties.

“Weddings and funerals may proceed but attendance should be limited to immediate family,” the archdiocese ordered.

Prior to the archbishop’s decision, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland had announced that “gatherings of more than 250 people, including social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings, are prohibited at all locations and venues.” An executive order was issued to that effect.

Like other bishops, including those in Austria, archbishop Gregory dispensed Catholics from fulfilling their Sunday obligation.

According to the Code of Canon Law, Catholics are obliged to participate in Holy Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation, such as Christmas. “Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

If it is not possible to attend Mass, “it is strongly recommended that the faithful … devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.”

Yesterday, Maryland’s Department of Education had announced a “temporary closure” of public schools.

“This afternoon, during Governor Larry Hogan’s press conference, Dr. Karen Salmon, State Superintendent of Schools, directed that effective Monday, March 16th, through Friday, March 27th, all public schools in Maryland will be closed. All scheduled school-sanctioned travel for students and staff will also be cancelled effective immediately.”

Again, the Washington archbishop followed the government’s lead.

“We are aware of the rapidly developing district and state guidelines regarding the coronavirus.  My number one priority as your Archbishop is to ensure the safety and health of all who attend our Masses, the children in our schools, and those we welcome through our outreach and services,” he said.

“Please know that this decision does not come lightly to close our schools or cancel Masses. We are profoundly saddened that we are not able to celebrate our sacraments as a community for the time being but we know Christ remains with us at all times – specifically in times of worry like this,” said Gregory.

He recommended people watch Mass on television, on the diocesan website, or on social media.

“May the peace of Christ settle any anxieties and fear we may have. Let us continue to pray for the people whose lives have been impacted by the coronavirus as well as those who continue to care for them,” Gregory concluded.

Just yesterday, Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle suspended all public Masses indefinitely following an emergency declaration by Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

“I want to acknowledge the best science that is out there, that basically says despite our best efforts, this epidemic is going to continue to spread,” Etienne said in a short video. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing everything we possibly can to restrict the spread of this virus, and of this epidemic.”

While public Masses are suspended, “every priest has an obligation to celebrate the Eucharist every day and certainly I want our priests to continue to do that,” Etienne said. “And I want all of us to continue to pray for our efforts and the efforts of so many others to care for the sick and to slow down the spread of this virus.”

Archbishop Gregory of Washington did not mention private Masses of priests in his statement.

On a special website dedicated to coronavirus resources and information, the Archdiocese of Washington recommended that parishes “strongly urge the faithful to receive the Holy Eucharist only in their hands instead of on the tongue to mitigate any transmission of saliva.”

Meanwhile, the neighboring Diocese of Arlington released a Wednesday statement telling the faithful that public health officials said receiving Holy Communion by hand is not more sanitary than receiving it on the tongue. As of this morning, that statement appears to have been deleted.

On the other side of the country, the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, declared that “a parish cannot ban the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue.”

The archdiocese, led by Archbishop Alexander Sample, had consulted two doctors on the question of the manner of receiving Holy Communion. Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus, countless bishops and bishops’ conferences had recommended, if not mandated, the reception of the Eucharist in the hand.

The doctors “agreed that done properly the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand pose a more or less equal risk.”

“The risk of touching the tongue and passing the saliva on to others is obviously a danger however the chance of touching someone’s hand is equally probable and one’s hands have a greater exposure to germs,” the statement of the archdiocese pointed out.

Similarly, the Archdiocese of Edmonton in Canada had said that public health experts “have advised that there is no greater risk of infection in receiving the host on the tongue than there is in receiving in the hand. Communicants are free to receive either way.”

“However, for people’s greater peace of mind, priests should offer a dedicated line for communicants who prefer to receive on the tongue,” the archdiocese recommended.

According to official numbers provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 1,215 cases of coronavirus registered in the United States. Less than 20 cases have been reported from Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

Nonetheless, the Archdiocese of Washington is imposing some of the most drastic measures in the United States.