Northern Ireland news

Bishops to finalise Mass plan

Bishops are due to sign-off on plans to allow public Mass to safely resume this month, with Catholics in Northern Ireland facing a longer wait than parishioners in the Republic, writes William Scholes

Social distancing and one-way systems, such as that established in St Mary's Church in Belfast to facilitate individual prayer, is here to stay as parishes prepare for a return to public Mass. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

CATHOLIC bishops will meet by video conference today to finalise their guidelines for safely reopening churches for public worship after months of coronavirus-enforced closure.

The bishops had already well progressed their plans, contained in a 'national framework document' and due to be published this week, before Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's announcement on Friday that a range of Covid-19 restrictions were being eased more quickly than had been envisaged.

This means that while parishes in the Republic can prepare for a return to public Mass from June 29 - rather than the original July 20 - those in Northern Ireland have no such certainty.

Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said it was his "fervent hope and prayer" that northern parishes "will also soon be able to gather for public worship in the same way as parishes on the rest of the island".

Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin says it is his 'fervent hope and prayer' that parishes in Northern Ireland will also soon be able to gather for public worship. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The 'family and community' section of the Stormont Executive's undated 'pathway to recovery' contemplates church services being permitted in step four of its five-step plan.

With socially-distanced indoor visits to immediate family still not allowed, step one of this section has yet to be completed.

Different approaches to opening places of worship will create particular anomalies in the four cross-border dioceses of Armagh, Clogher, Derry and Kilmore.

However, northern parishes will still be working to prepare their churches so they can reopen as soon as the public health authorities indicate it is safe to do so.

A checklist on physical distancing and hygiene measures is expected to be issued today to guide parish's preparations ahead of June 29.

And when churches do reopen, it is clear that attending Mass will be a very different experience.

Parishes will be asked to calculate how many people their buildings can safely hold, with this figure clearly displayed.

Proposals being considered today include installing transparent screens with openings at hand level, similar to those installed around check-outs in some supermarkets, at Communion distribution points.

Priests may be expected to wear visors when giving out Communion to Mass-goers at their seats.

One-way systems and aircraft-style safety videos are also being considered. It is likely that singing will no longer be permitted.

The faithful who fall into vulnerable categories, including because of their age or ill-health, will be encouraged to remain at home, and to participate via webcam or by radio.

Bishops are expected to extend the suspension of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, which will in turn facilitate arrangements for people living in particular areas of a parish to attend on different days of the week.

It is highly likely that not every church will be able to reopen. Maintaining social distancing and safe entry and exit arrangements in some smaller church buildings may not be viable, for example.

And supervising the new arrangements, including the obligation to carry out extra cleaning and ensuring Mass-goers follow social distancing and hygiene measures, will rely on a great deal of additional help from volunteers - a requirement that may be beyond some parishes.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said that "each parish should be building up a core group that can monitor preparation".

"It might be an opportunity to ask young people to volunteer," he said in a statement in advance of the Republic's accelerated roadmap out of lockdown.

"It may not be possible for all churches to open and provide the supervision needed. Initially many people will be fearful of attending indoor gatherings.

"Watching televised Masses from other European countries in these days, I realise that Mass with social distancing can be a rather bleak experience, not the joyful celebration that we might desire. But it is an important first stage."

'Virtual' Masses can be replaced by a cautious return to public Mass from June 29 in the Republic if social distancing and other precautions are followed. St Eunan's Cathedral in Letterkenny, Co Donegal is just one of the churches to broadcast Mass via webcam. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

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