Northern Ireland news

Social distancing to be a hallmark of post-lockdown Catholic Church

St Mary's Church on Chapel Lane in Belfast reopened for private prayer last month. Social distancing and priests with face masks will be features of public Mass when it resumes. Picture by Hugh Russell

SOCIALLY-distanced and much-reduced congregations, Holy Communion distributed by priests wearing face masks, and thorough cleaning and sanitisation regimes will be hallmarks of public worship when Catholic parishes reopen from the end of this month.

A 'framework document' published yesterday by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference sets out a series of checklists to assist priests and parish Covid-19 support teams of lay volunteers in the return to public celebration of Mass and the sacraments.

The bishops make clear that in the changed world in which we now live, "the resumption of public worship should not mean simply going back to where we were before".

"At the end of the month we hope to slowly and cautiously resume public worship in our churches, knowing that it can only happen in a limited way," they said.

"We will still need patience, perseverance and self-sacrifice."

A 'safety first' approach runs through the document. Post-lockdown, "in all circumstances the safety and health of people, ministers and priests must be paramount," they say.

"No church should be opened for public prayer or worship until satisfactory arrangements, as indicated in this framework, have been put in place."

The "generous support" of volunteers, especially younger members, will be essential "to plan, implement and manage the transition back to full parish life and the celebration of the sacraments".

The bishops note that "some of our older generation may be unable to offer their normal help in the current circumstances".

Anyone who is vulnerable or unwell is advised to not attend church and "if possible, participate, as now, via webcam, social media, television or radio".

"The same applies to those who have been in recent contact with someone who has the virus," says the guidance.

The two-metre physical distancing requirement means "that the maximum number of people who can be accommodated for any communal prayer or liturgy will be much reduced".

Parishes will have to work out the number of people each church can safely accommodate, as well as how people will enter and leave the building.

Places where people are allowed to sit must be clearly marked, and stewards are recommended to assist people to maintain a social distance, particularly when approaching for Holy Communion.

Hand sanitiser must be provided at entrances and exits and cleaning processes established after every gathering.

Sanctuary areas should be arranged to allow those involved in a liturgical role to keep their distance from each other.

Music ministry may "for the time being" be limited to a single cantor and a single instrumentalist.

Other liturgical advice includes priests visibly sanitising their hands and wearing "a face-covering" while distributing Communion.

The bishops have also extended the dispensation from Sunday and Holy Day obligations.

Social distancing and health measures must be clearly communicated when churches reopen for public worship. Fr Tim Bartlett, administrator of St Mary's, Chapel Lane, with signs installed when private prayer was reintroduced last month. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Places of worship across Ireland were closed in the middle of March as part of the measures introduced to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Very small funerals were permitted. Churches in the Republic were allowed to remain open for private prayer throughout, a facility eventually extended to Northern Ireland last month.

July 20 was originally envisaged as the date from which churches in the south may be allowed to reopen, but the accelerated relaxation of coronavirus restrictions announced last week by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar brought that forward to June 29.

There are no dates in the Stormont executive's Covid-19 recovery plan.

The Church of Ireland published its Returning to In-Church Worship Protocols on Monday.

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