CAUTION AS LOCKDOWN ARE EASED Churches reopening with restrictions

Tej Francis

(CNS/UCAN/VATICAN NEWS) Several countries in Europe slowly eased restrictions as part of a long-term strategy for containing the spread of the coronavirus, churches, too, are seeing changes in what is or will be allowed.

Where possible, for example, in Italy, protocols were the result of government officials, public health experts and church leaders working together to find ways religious practices and public worship could be resumed without posing risks to individuals and public health.

After two months of live-streamed Masses and private prayer at home, the faithful in Italy will once again be able to attend religious ceremonies in churches around the country.

The news came on Thursday, 7 May with the signing of a Protocol, by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and the Minister of the Interior, Luciana Lamorghese. The protocol outlines rules and regulations that must be followed in order to ensure minimal risk of contagion of the coronavirus.

Where Masses are resuming, most include some common rules such as: limits on the size of the congregation; use of hand sanitizer by everyone before entering the church and by those distributing Communion immediately before doing so; no holy water in fonts; no exchange of a sign of peace; and Communion only in the hand.

Here is a roundup of what some European countries had decided as of May 7:

The French government announced April 28 that it would begin a gradual easing of restrictions starting May 11 after its six-week lockdown. But churches will not be able to resume public liturgies until at least June 2.

Church leaders had hoped for a lifting of measures by May 31 for Pentecost.

According to government directives, places of worship can stay open as they are now and funerals can be celebrated in churches and cemeteries, but with no more than 20 people present.

In Switzerland, the Catholic bishops’ conference issued guidelines April 27 on the norms to be followed when church services were set to open to the public starting June 8.

In Germany, dioceses were able to decide on the date to open churches for public worship after a six-week lockdown. The earliest date was April 20 with other dioceses staggering their start dates until May 10. Only a handful of dioceses were still left as of May 5 without an announced start date.

Each diocese established guidelines with direction from the bishops’ conference.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to outline May 10 the government’s plan for partially lifting its lockdown measures as it heads toward “phase two” of trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

While “there is no substitute for Catholics being able to physically attend and participate in the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments,” said a statement written on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales May 1, “it is right that the Catholic community fulfils its role in contributing to the preservation of life and the common good of society.”

In Ireland, the Catholic Church together with leaders of the nation’s main Christian communities, released a joint statement May 4 after discussing the future reopening of churches and places of worship, saying they look forward to the reopening of churches. However, “we accept that at this time it would not be appropriate to consider a full return to such gatherings, apart from the limited number of people who are able to meet for funeral services.”

In Vietnam, the Catholic Church has resumed religious activities as normal after the government lifted social distancing measures against the Covid-19 pandemic.

On May 8, Vu Chien Thang, head of the government’s committee for religious affairs, said the country had basically controlled the Covid-19 pandemic and found no new communal transmission of the coronavirus for the past 21 days. All provinces and cities had a low risk of infection.

Bishop John Mary Vu Tat of Hung Hoa called on Catholics to eagerly attend liturgy on May 9 and to maintain family prayers to build their families as churches at homes.

Vietnam has 27 dioceses serving some seven million Catholics out of a total population of 96 million.

In Macau, church officials have relaxed restrictions imposed on liturgy as the former Portuguese colony reported no sign of community transmission of coronavirus, with no local infections being registered for several weeks.

Macau Diocese, which covers the entire island region, resumed weekday Masses on March 7 but public Sunday Masses will only recommence on May 16. Communion distribution resumed on March 22. Catholics can receive Communion outside their parish churches after viewing online Sunday Masses in their homes.

Weekday Masses “will continue to be open to the public as usual,” said an official circular signed by diocesan chancellor Father Cyril Jerome Law.