Letter from Denver bishops on the resumption of public Masses

Public Masses will resume in a limited way starting May 9

Archdiocese of Denver

To the lay faithful of northern Colorado,

Greetings in the Risen Lord!

On March 13, we joined our brother bishops of Colorado in making the difficult decision to suspend public Mass out of concern for the common good of the people of our parishes and the people of Colorado, i.e., their safety and health amidst the onset of the Coronavirus. At the time, 56 days ago, we did not foresee the suspension lasting as long as it has and have determined that it is now time to resume public celebration of the Mass in a limited and gradual manner.

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We know that this time of fasting from the Eucharist has been a particularly difficult burden on all of you, especially during Holy Week, Easter, and the Easter season. It has truly been a sacrifice, but as is true with any sacrifice, it has not been in vain. Regularly, over 210,000 people attend Mass each weekend in our state. As the Church is one of the largest organizations in Colorado, we have a moral obligation to do our part to protect the health of our members and our fellow citizens. Your sacrifice of not being able to participate in Mass and receive the Eucharist has aided the larger goal of substantially limiting the spread of the virus and its impact on the vulnerable.

In the Archdiocese of Denver, public Mass will resume in a limited way on Saturday, May 9. It is important for everyone to realize that the 149 locations where Mass is typically celebrated across northern Colorado vary in size and capabilities; they are located in various municipalities, and thus, how the public celebration of the Mass resumes will be different at each parish. What we can say is that extreme caution will be used, that strict physical distancing will be observed, and that pastors will consult the guidance issued by state and local health authorities. This, of course, will mean that access to the Masses celebrated over the next few months will be very limited. We will not go back to the way it was in early March when Masses were cancelled. It will be important to check with your parish website if Mass will be offered, when it will be offered and how to attend due to the limitations.

Since the faithful will continue to be dispensed from the obligation to participate in person at a Sunday Mass, those who make an effort to attend limited public Mass should not expect to do so with regularity and should be willing to attend on any day of the week. Important to note too: it is still recommended that those 65 and older and those with certain underlying medical conditions, shelter at home. This means some of our priests who fall into these at-risk categories and do not yet feel comfortable celebrating public Masses may refrain from doing so.

As we approach the Feast of Pentecost, let us all call upon the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the gifts, fruits, and graces we need to meet the challenge of resuming public Masses with great mercy and solidarity.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila, S.T.L.
Archbishop of Denver

Most Reverend Jorge Rodriguez, S.T.D.
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.