Bishops urged to draw a roadmap back to public Mass

Fr Eugene O'Neill and Fr Tony McAleese from St Patrick's Church on Donegall Street in Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

CATHOLIC leaders must create a "credible roadmap" so that churches can re-open and public Masses resume sooner than the July 20 date envisaged in the Republic's plan to exit the Covid-19 lockdown.

In an editorial, The Irish Catholic urges bishops to lobby the government "for a timeframe that is realistic, ambitious and keeps public health to the fore".

"A swifter return to public worship can be achieved if there is the will," it says.

"We need active planning for a strategy that would allow for a safe and gradual return to public Mass."

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Churches have been closed for public worship since the middle of March as part of social distancing measures - which the Irish Catholic describes as "draconian" - introduced on both sides of the border to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Funerals have also been heavily restricted.

In the Republic, churches have been allowed to remain open for private prayer, although some dioceses have chosen to keep their buildings closed.

That facility has not been offered in Northern Ireland, to the intense frustration of Church leaders.

Irish Catholic editor Michael Kelly

Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown told The Irish News last month that "access to well spaced-out private devotion time in a church, particularly in the Catholic tradition, is at least as important as access to an off-licence".

On Monday, Ireland's Church leaders appealed to the Stormont Executive for the restrictions on individual visits for private prayer to be eased "sooner rather than later".

The Church leaders, however, said that now was not the time for public worship to resume.

"We totally recognise that we really can't gather people in any numbers inside our church buildings for collective worship at this time," Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said.

Dr Martin said that dioceses were already "imagining what it might be like to gradually re-open our churches".

"We know this is some time off, but it's a process that every organisation is doing - how might we go back to 'normal'?" he told The Irish News.

The Irish Catholic proposes that those wishing to attend Mass may have to reserve a place in advance and that "spots could be marked on the pews" to ensure that people are two metres apart.

Masks should also be worn and "it may not be prudent to have the distribution of Holy Communion at Mass".

"As other restrictions start to ease, we need to start having Masses with small groups of people where social distancing can be observed and facilities for hand hygiene are available," argues the editorial.

"In a large church constructed to hold 1,000 people, for example, surely it is possible to have Mass for 50 people?"

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