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Bishops issue guidelines on returning to public worship

By Sarah Mac Donald - 10 June, 2020

The Irish Bishops Conference has issued guidelines to parishes across Ireland on the initial steps they need to take to enable them return to the celebration of the sacraments and to ensure that those in attendance are protected.

Following their online meeting on Monday, the bishops issued their document titled, ‘Framework Document for a return to the public celebration of Mass and the Sacraments’ on Tuesday.

They said that as the Church looks forward “in joy and hope” to the re-opening of its churches for the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments, the Framework Document is offered to dioceses and parishes to assist priests and people in their preparations and to help ensure that the re-opening of churches for public worship happens “in a safe and measured way”.

Given the variety of church buildings and communities, they acknowledged that the Framework will need to be adapted to suit differing situations on the ground.

The bishops warned that “in all circumstances the safety and health of people, ministers, and priests must be paramount. No church should be opened for public prayer or worship until satisfactory arrangements, as indicated in this Framework, have been put in place.”

They said the Framework had been developed following “extensive” consultation across the dioceses of Ireland and that it takes cognisance of the most up-to-date public health advice and associated regulations and obligations.

Parishes are told they must establish a Covid-19 Support Team of parishioners to organise preparations and to oversee their implementation and verification. They must also secure an appropriate supply of signage, cleaning/sanitising materials and accessories and items necessary for protection.

On physical distancing, the bishops adhere to the current public health advice on maintaining at least two metres between people.

This will mean that the number of people who can be accommodated for any communal prayer or liturgy will be much reduced.

The bishops’ guidance also highlights that the demands of physical distancing will also apply in relation to people entering the church and leaving it and that there should be stewards to assist people as they enter or leave and to direct them to available seats.

Churches must ensure that the areas where people can sit are clearly indicated by closing off rows of seats. They must also provide for the needs of people with disabilities.

Clear advice must be issued regarding people observing physical distancing outside the church and provision must be made for hand sanitising entering and leaving the church.

On the maintenance of hygiene, the guidelines require that all holy water fonts are emptied and that some “safe mechanism” is put in place for taking up church collections, such as secure and supervised boxes near the doors of the church.

In relation to liturgical matters, the Framework document recommends that for the time being, Communion should not be given under both kinds, and that the host should be received in the hand.

The dispensation from the Sunday and Holy Day obligation is also extended.

Priests and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion must visibly sanitise their hands both before and after the distribution of Communion and should wear a face-covering while distributing Communion.

On baptisms, the celebrant will sign the child with the Cross without touching and anoint with Holy Oils using a cotton bud.

In a statement, Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick said the publication of the framework was “a very positive moment for us all, not least as it gets us thinking about the return to public celebration of the sacraments, which we have all missed so much”.

However, he underlined that it would not be without challenges, as on a parish by parish basis, there is much work to do in a short space of time to ensure that every public health measure possible is taken.

“Obviously, the number of people allowed into churches will be very significantly limited and we need to get a handle on that and all other arrangements. Ultimately, communications will play a big role in this also so that the public will know the restrictions and the arrangements,” the Bishop of Limerick said.

“Some people, due to existing health concerns, won’t be able to attend and we will have them very much in mind. If there’s a consolation it is in how much people have engaged with our services online during the COVID lockdown. We will, of course, be continuing with those and look forward to our celebrations being enhanced come 29th June,” he said.

Meanwhile Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam said the whole pandemic had come at a time “of weakness unparalleled” in the Church in Ireland’s recent history. “And yet the challenge was met. Parishes organised Masses on webcam and radio. Many priests and bishops took to ministry via online and digital media with flair and creativity,” he noted.

Dr Neary said a “tired Church, wearied by relentless change, found new strength in a context of general human emergency. And now, like so many other organisations, it faces a slow, tentative return to something like normality. A new normality, because things cannot possibly revert to being just as they were before.”

“Are we up for it? Are we still in the greatest game of all? Are we able for yet another cultural and spiritual journey?” he challenged.

He said the central question facing us at this time was whether we believed.

“No matter that our numbers are dwindling and our resources accordingly sparse. No matter even that vocations are down to a trickle. These problems dwarf beside the one we face if we cannot answer this crucial question. And if we can answer it then these lesser problems can all, in God’s time, one way or another, be solved. It is the question asked of any catechumen at the brink of baptism: Do you believe?”

Archbishop Neary said that with the restrictions “we will experience again the frustration of feeling that a huge amount of effort is being expended for an apparently limited result. But that is not the point. The key question remains: Do you believe?”

He also highlighted the potential of the internet for spreading the Gospel and said it recalled the crucial importance of the endless roads and protected shipping lanes of the Roman Empire for the initial spread of Christianity.

“It has proved a gift during the lockdown and the possibilities for spreading the Gospel through the internet are endless. This lesson cannot be forgotten, and it is crucial that parishes and priests continue to experiment with it, investing if necessary, in computer and communication training.”

“Believers now are scattered here and there all over the country. We need to be in contact, to take warmth and courage from each other.”

“The internet is no substitute for the nourishment of physical presence and interaction. But it could be a considerable help in sharing the Word and in creating opportunities for meeting God and each other,” Archbishop Neary said.

The Framework Document can be read in full here: https://www.catholicbishops.ie/2020/06/09/statement-of-the-irish-catholic-bishops-conference-on-the-publication-of-the-framework-document-for-a-return-to-the-public-celebration-of-mass-and-the-sacraments/

Live streaming of Masses and Services from churches in Ireland and the UK can be found here: http://churchservices.tv

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