In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, the Rev. Frank Murray sprinkles ashes over a parishioner's head at St. John Catholic Church on York Street in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Mainers who attend Catholic Masses will no longer be required to wear masks.

The Friday decision by the Diocese of Portland to drop its “strong recommendation” to mask is effective immediately for all 141 Catholic churches in Maine. That recommendation could be reinstated if cases rise again in specific communities or schools run by the diocese.

Anyone who wishes to wear a mask is welcome to, the diocese said Friday.

Additionally, priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion will no longer be required to wear masks, and beginning Monday, masks will be optional for anyone participating in parish faith formation programs and students and staff in Catholic schools.

“Masking while indoors was strongly recommended as a concrete expression of love for our brothers and sisters, especially when gathered as the Body of Christ for Mass,” Bishop Robert Deeley said Friday. “Our guidance suggests that it is time to take the next step in returning to a more normal celebration of Masses. The diocese is so grateful for the understanding and cooperation in this challenging time.”

That decision comes as mask requirements across Maine and the nation have relaxed in recent days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that healthy Mainers in all 16 counties can forgo masking because of falling rates of virus transmission.

The Maine Legislature voted Thursday to lift its masking requirement effective Monday, and the Mills administration will no longer require masks in the state’s day cares and schools, leaving the decision to individuals, city or town councils, and school boards.

Many cities across the state, including Lewiston, already have opted to make masking in their schools optional, while mandates remain in effect in other communities, such as Portland, amid concern about locally high rates of virus transmission.