Northern Ireland news

Catholic Church hopeful for early resumption of public Mass

Catholic parishes in Northern Ireland, including St Patrick's in Donegall Street, Belfast, have made extensive preparations to open safely for private prayer. Bishops hope that public Mass can resume sooner than originally expected. Picture by Mal McCann

THE Catholic Church is working on a plan which it hopes will allow public Masses to safely resume sooner than currently envisaged by coronavirus recovery plans in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Bishops are expected to sign off early next month on all-Ireland guidelines for how parishes can return to collective worship.

"It is my hope that the Church's national framework document will not only guide our continuing preparations at parish and diocesan level, it will also support our ongoing engagement with government and with public health authorities, north and south, in making a case for the early resumption of the public celebration of Mass and the sacraments in a measured and safe way," said Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin yesterday.

A checklist for parish priests and Covid-19 parish support teams on physical distancing and hygiene is to be made available.

"This will help you evaluate progress made to date and guide any necessary improvements in practice within your parish," said the Archbishop in a letter to diocesan clergy and religious.

Church services stopped across Ireland in the middle of March as part of the social distancing and public health measures introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19.

In its five-phase roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions, the Dublin government has proposed that reopening places of worship could be considered from July 20 as part of phase four.

The 'family and community' section of the Stormont Executive's undated 'pathway to recovery' also contemplates church services being permitted in step four of its five-step plan; step one has not yet been completed.

Archbishop Eamon Martin: Learning from the Covid-19 crisis and preparing for a 'new normal'

Churches in Northern Ireland were last week given permission to reopen for private, individual prayer, as long as strict social distancing and hygiene measures were in place. Drive-in services are also allowed.

Speaking ahead of this weekend's Pentecost celebrations, Dr Martin said it was "sad and disappointing that we've now come the whole way through the Easter season and we are still unable to gather physically for Mass and the sacraments".

"We've all been making great sacrifices to protect life and health and to support the common good," he said.

"But still we miss meeting up as parish communities.

"Thankfully our sacrifices are bearing fruit, and the number of deaths and ICU admissions from Covid-19 is continuing to decline, thank God."

Dr Martin thanked all those who were working hard "at local level to plan for the full reopening of parish life and worship".

"I encourage you to continue to work closely with your priests so that your parish stands ready to respond quickly when the public health authorities tell us that it is safe to begin gathering together again for Mass inside our churches," he said.

The Catholic Church's national framework document has emerged from suggestions from every diocese as to how public Mass might resume safely and will, said Dr Martin, "offer guidance on best practice for our congregations as they return to collective worship".

Parishioners have been asking the bishops to "prepare for safe physical distancing and good hygiene".

"We've also been looking at important issues like the distribution and reception of holy communion, advice for deacons, altar servers, concelebrants, Eucharistic ministers and others who assist at Mass," said the Archbishop.

When the bishops meet online at the start of June they will consider extending the current suspension of the Sunday obligation, the sign of the peace and the use of holy water fonts.

"We will also discuss the celebration of baptism, marriage and the sacrament of reconciliation in the context of any ongoing restrictions," said Dr Martin.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said that while parishes had been very creative in reaching out digitally during lockdown, "we need to move beyond the virtual".

"From the outset, the government roadmap has noted that it will be constantly evaluating progress in reopening society and it is important that we as Church are ready to respond to any change in the current proposed timescale," he said.

"We have to examine how our desires can be measured within the overall public health situation.

"It is not that we place public health measures above our spiritual mission.

"I remind parishes of the words of Pope Francis when he greeted of the opening of churches in Italy: 'But please, let us proceed respecting the norms, the prescriptions we are given to safeguard the health of each individual and the people'.

"I also draw attention to the comments of the Archbishop of Boston as churches in his diocese were preparing to 'proceed patiently and with caution' towards reopening for public worship: 'No matter what the start date, no parish should have Mass unless they can do it safely'."

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