Churches remain open for prayer, but Sunday Masses have been put on hold across much of Canada. Michael Swan

Faith communities join the fight against COVID-19

By  Michael Swan and Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News
  • March 17, 2020

Faith communities across Canada are answering a call to make sacrifices to their faith practices in the national battle to control the spread of the COVID-19.

Updated 2020-03-18

Catholic dioceses across the country are accepting recommendations from health officials to limit the size of gatherings, which means the suspension of Masses and cancellation of a wide range of other parish activities.

Canada’s largest diocese, the Archdiocese of Toronto, has cancelled all public daily and Sunday Masses, placed restrictions on baptisms and marriages, postponed First Communion, Reconciliation and Confirmation and limited most parish activities. The move was taken after the Ontario government declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings of more than 50 people.

Cardinal Thomas Collins called this a “painful moment in the life of the Church” but hoped the “extreme measures” will help stem “the pandemic that has affected so many in our community and around the world.”

We are facing many trials during our Lenten journey this year,” he said in a statement.

As several dioceses across Canada announced wide-ranging cancellations, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a statement calling on Catholics to “heed” public health directives.

Those directives from provincial health authorities changed frequently during a chaotic week, but in essence they confirmed a health crisis and advised against public gatherings. Several provinces have capped public gatherings at 50 people.

“If those (health authorities) indicate that we shouldn’t be gathered for the sake of the greater and the common good, then we would necessarily make those decisions for the sake of those who are suffering and who have died,” said Calgary Bishop William McGrattan prior to cancelling all Masses in the diocese until at least Palm Sunday on April 5.

As the country moved towards an unprecedented shutdown of schools, work places, government buildings, restaurants and other public spaces,Quebec was the first province to impose harsh restrictions. There, bishops asked families to reschedule funerals, weddings and baptisms and suspended all parish gatherings, including weekday and Sunday Masses.

Similar precautions were expected be enacted across the county.

In Ontario, where the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded, weekend Masses on March 14-15 were cancelled in the dioceses of Toronto, Ottawa, London and Peterborough after the chief medical officer recommended cancelling all gatherings of 250 or more. Three days later, the number was lowered to 50, effectively cancelling upcoming Sunday Masses in most parishes across the province.

“Our primary concern is the spiritual and physical health and welfare of the faithful and all those who serve at our parishes, recognizing that we have a duty to care for the community at large and the most vulnerable among us,” Collins said in a statement.

Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said it was the Church’s “civic duty” to follow the directives of public health authorities. But Church leaders must not abandon people in a time of crisis, Prendergast said,

“During this time, when there is understandable anxiety among so many, the Church has an important role to play through our outreach ministries. Particular care should be taken to ensure that the vulnerable are not alone,” he said.

In Edmonton, Archbishop Richard Smith, who went briefly into self-isolation before testing negative for COVID-19, cancelled all weekday and weekend Masses.

“Let us accept this as our civic duty at this time, and offer this moment in sacrifice to God for the sake of all who are ill from the COVID-19 virus,” he said.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver called for “creativity and compassion” from pastors and parish staff in dealing with the health crisis. The archdiocese announced it would attempt to maintain weekend Masses but a 50-person limit set by the government “must be observed.”

“Parishes should explore opportunities to creatively connect with vulnerable parishioners — perhaps this is through phone calls and/or visits where appropriate,” Miller said. “It would be an act of charity to check with elderly or shut-in neighbours to see if they require assistance as they are at risk of social isolation or increased vulnerability if they must leave home to shop for essentials.” 

In Halifax, Archbishop Anthony Mancini suspended all weekday and weekend Masses, as well as all liturgical gatherings, but asked that churches remain open for private prayer and adoration. The smaller diocese of Antigonish enacted precautions but, as of March 17, was not cancelling Masses.

“Let all of us pray for those affected with the virus, for those who are feeling distress as a result of it, and for healthcare workers who devote themselves generously to serving those in need,” Mancini said.

All four dioceses in New Brunswick and the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Nfld., cancelled weekend Masses until further notice.

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