As nations around the world begin to see the curves flattened in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities are beginning to allow the public celebration of Masses again.
When the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 began to be seen as a serious threat, many houses of worship, recognizing that people in attendance are often in close proximity of one another and that many are older and at greater risk, began issuing warnings against shaking hands during the ritual “Sign of Peace” or partaking of Communion from the chalice. Then, bishops, sensing that a greater threat was at work, began to issue dispensations from the Sunday obligation to attend Mass for the elderly and those who are ill, and later for the general population.
Finally, whether the bishops decided on their own or civil authorities required them to do it, they began to issue decrees that priests should continue celebrating Mass, but that no congregations may be present.
Now, those edicts are beginning to be lifted. In most cases, the new allowances come with restrictions: each Mass can be attended by a certain number of people, depending on the size of the church, to allow worshipers space to “social distance.” Other requirements include wearing face masks, sanitizing churches after each Mass, and receiving the Communion wafer on the palm rather than directly on the tongue. The elderly, the sick and other at-risk people are requested to stay at home.
In the United States, Archbishop of Allen H. Vigneron announced this week that churches in the Archdiocese of Detroit will resume public Masses on May 19.
“I write today to share some measure of hope during this difficult time of pandemic and social distancing,” Archbishop Vigneron stated. “In recent weeks, we have watched with relief as our State of Michigan gradually opened to select businesses and activities, with prudent precautions firmly in place to prevent a severe ‘second wave’ of the coronavirus pandemic. In keeping with this gradual reopening of our society, it is necessary that we make similar arrangements within our local Church to allow once again for the communal celebration of Holy Mass, which at its core is the most ‘essential’ activity known to our world.”
Vigneron issued a set of liturgical directives for the period of reinstating public Masses. He said the directives “will need strict adherence for all public liturgies, including weddings, funerals, and baptisms.”
“The Mass you may attend in the weeks ahead will look and feel quite different from the Mass you remember from two months ago,” he said. “It will be imperative for all of us — pastors, parish staff, volunteers, and all the faithful — to work together during these times. The pandemic is not over and safety precautions must be followed in order to promote the continued health and safety of everyone in our community.”
The directives stipulate that:
- Face-coverings/masks are to be worn by the faithful in and around the church.
- Church facilities must be sanitized before or after Masses.
- Physical distancing must be practiced in the church and on church property.
- Parish churches are not to exceed 25% of total capacity for the church.
In addition, a separate set of directives said that no one should be denied the option of receiving Communion on the tongue, but that some people might fear contagion from the priest’s hands because someone is receiving in this way. The directives suggest that either those receiving on the tongue go last, or that separate lines be designated for those receiving on the palm and those receiving on the tongue.
Persons older than 65, with a compromised heath condition or caring for the sick in any way, are encouraged to stay home, and anyone who is ill, has a temperature, cough, etc., should stay home, the directive said.
Additionally, the directives said, “health experts indicate that singing produces 6 to 10 times more droplets from our mouths than recitation. Keeping singing for the assembly to a minimum is advised and the congregation should not remove their masks to sing.”
Archbishop Vigneron renewed the dispensation from the Sunday obligation to attend Mass through Sunday, September 6.
In Kentucky, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz wrote in a May 11 letter that all churches that can open safely by May 20 should do so and that the faithful may be present at Mass.
Several other dioceses have already begun holding Masses with congregations again, including the dioceses and archdioceses of:
- Omaha, Nebraska,
- Fort Worth, Texas,
- Lake Charles, Louisiana,
- Las Cruces, New Mexico,
- Helena, Montana
Signs of opening up are cropping up in other parts of the world as well. In Sweden, the Church began celebrating public Masses again back on April 19, Divine Mercy Sunday, said Kristina Hellner, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Stockholm.
In Lithuania, public attendance at Mass on workdays and Saturdays has been allowed since April 27, said Fr. Mykolas Sotničenka, undersecretary of the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference. Sunday celebration of Mass with parishioners present started on May 10.
The government of Estonia announced plans last week to allow all churches to resume Masses with a congregation as of May 10, reported Vatican News.
“Churches in Estonia remained open throughout the worst of the crisis. Catholics were free to enter to receive Holy Communion privately, to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, and to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” the Vatican site said. “Bishop Jourdan predicted there will be fewer people at Mass at first, partly out of residual fear and partly due to limited capacity in churches. He has invited parishes to offer more Masses on Sunday, as a way of increasing capacity.”
Many German churches reopened their doors to parishioners this past weekend. The Cologne Cathedral allowed 122 “prescreened worshipers wearing masks and sitting apart in pews,” the New York Times reported.
“Physical religious services could not be forbidden outright even during the pandemic, the country’s constitutional court ruled in April, although strict distancing and hygiene rules had to be followed,” the Times said. “But the court’s decision did not change reality on the ground. Churches, temples, mosques and synagogues remained closed for everything other than quiet and individual prayer.”
In Berlin’s main Protestant cathedral, 50 selected worshipers were welcomed but directed not to sing, as doing so could spread any viruses they might not know they have, the paper said.
In Italy, the bishops hammered out a deal with the Italian government to allow Catholics to go to Mass beginning Monday, May 18, Crux’s John L. Allen Jr. reported.
On that date, which is the centennial of Pope St. John Paul II’s birth, Pope Francis plans to offer Mass for his predecessor at the tomb of the late pontiff in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican announced Wednesday that after that, it will no longer live-stream Pope Francis’ daily Mass from the Casa Santa Martha, as it has for the past few weeks.
In Ireland, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said Wednesday that preparations should be made for a full reopening of Catholic churches. He suggested that markers “could be laid on benches and on floors to facilitate social distancing. … A written plan should be developed regarding hand hygiene for larger numbers and for adequate cleansing of churches.”
The Irish government has proposed that the opening of places of worship should take place in mid-July, but Martin expressed his hope that it might take place earlier “if the public health situation permits it.”
It is important for the Church to “give the message that we are enthusiastically preparing for the opening of all our churches and the resumption of public Masses,” Martin said, according to the Irish Times.
His brother bishops in the U.K. were a bit more forceful in their response to the British government’s plans. In a statement issued Monday, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales responded to the government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, which keeps places of worship closed until at least July 4.
“The timing and the manner of the opening of churches touches profound sensitivities and spiritual needs,” the bishops stated. “The Government’s document and statements fail to recognize this.”
But the bishops noted that the Government outlined steps aimed at opening churches as soon as possible, including the establishment of a task force for places of worship, the Catholic Herald reported. “In dialogue with the Government, the Catholic Church will continue its engagement in this process and has already submitted a detailed plan, in full accordance with public health guidelines, for churches to be opened for private prayer,” the bishops said. “The Church is ready to play its full part in the task force, understanding that this includes the possible earlier use of churches for private prayer, as a first safe step towards their use for public worship.”
In France, which emerged from its lockdown on Monday, public celebration of Mass is not part of the list of activities permitted during “Phase 2” of the nation’s pandemic response, the National Catholic Register reported. In spite of pleas from religious leaders and lay Catholics, religious celebrations won’t be allowed to resume before June 2, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said April 28.
“The Permanent Council of the Conference of Bishops of France, on behalf of all the bishops, takes note with regret of this date which is imposed on Catholics and all religions of our country,” France’s bishops said in a statement. “We share the concern of the Government to limit the circulation of the epidemic as much as possible, but we find it hard to see that the ordinary practice of Mass promotes the spread of the virus and hinders respect for barrier gestures more than many of the activities that will resume soon. The spiritual and religious dimension of the human being contributes, we are convinced, to the peace of hearts, to strength in trial, to fraternity between people, and to all of social life. Freedom of worship is a building block of democratic life. This is why the bishops wish to meet with the public, national or local authorities, to prepare for the effective resumption of worship.
COMECE, the commission representing the European Union’s Catholic bishops, warned against the continued forced closure of places of worship during the pandemic, and called for their reopening to be consulted and coordinated with Church leaders, the Tablet reported.
“Freedom of religion, including freedom of worship, is a fundamental right and real necessity for many people”, said Fr. Manuel Enrique Barrios Prieto, COMECE’s general secretary. “COMECE takes this opportunity to restate that any erosion of fundamental rights in the current emergency context, including freedom of religion, must not become the new norm. These rights have to be fully re-established as early as possible.”
The EU Commission’s roadmap for lifting virus containment measures made no mention of religious services, COMECE said. Fr. Prieto commented that this is disappointing, since it “neglects the key role of religion in European societies.”