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Plans to re-open churches are in the works, but the date is very uncertain. Michael Swan

Cautious approach to re-open churches

  • May 6, 2020

With Saskatchewan starting to relax COVID-19 restrictions by allowing some gatherings of up to 10 people, the resumption of weekday Mass is a theoretical possibility that Regina’s archbishop has no plans to rush into.

Archbishop Donald Bolen stressed the primacy of life as a main consideration in decisions about resuming anything resembling normal parish life. He doesn’t want to tempt people to join gatherings that might pose risk.

“If we resume celebrations to the maximum extent possible and the virus spreads through just one of the 100-or-so parishes that could be providing the Eucharist at this time, and people die as a result, that would be an enormous tragedy and a heavy burden for all of us to bear,” Bolen said in his weekly YouTube message April 29.

Although Saskatchewan is ahead of most provinces in terms of reopening businesses, Bolen has not heard from the province on a timetable to resume faith community activities. Dentists, optometrists, chiropractors and other health-service providers were allowed to re-open May 4 subject to strict guidelines to minimize risk to public safety.

“The way we celebrate the Eucharist in our churches is conducive to the spread of the virus,” Bolen said. “Our yearning to provide the Eucharist clashes with the profound desire not to put people at risk.”

The archbishop’s caution is expected to be mirrored across the country as dioceses formulate plans to re-open church doors.

“If it was an emotional decision, a decision based on what we would like to do, we would be opening tomorrow,” said Archdiocese of Toronto spokesman Neil MacCarthy. “No one wants to be closed. The common good and our love of neighbour is what we have to be thinking first and foremost.”

If Saskatchewan’s safety measures are an indication, when weekday and Sunday Masses do eventually resume in Canada, the gatherings will likely look much different for some time. In addition to caps of 10 people, when some Saskatchewan businesses reopened May 4, people from different households were required to remain two metres apart and be screened for COVID-19 symptoms. There were one-way directional flows in hallways and offices to reduce personal interactions. Non-essential items such as reading material were removed from waiting areas and shared-use spaces were being disinfected after each customer visit.

Applying similar rules to churches has ramifications for how people enter and leave church, remain apart in pews, process to communion and perhaps sing without hymnals. Church bulletins and collection baskets would disappear. Choirs would be challenged to sing together but apart. Ushers would be busier than ever if they are to become safety gatekeepers and ensure pews, door handles and other surfaces are constantly disinfected.

The Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Diocese of Calgary have struck a joint task force “to discern when and how” Mass will begin again.

Late in April, Ontario released a three-phase framework for re-opening that emphasized economics and rescuing businesses cut off from their normal flow of customers. No dates were attached to the framework and no mention was made of religious services.

The Catholic Register asked the Premier’s Office and the Ministry of Health how the re-opening framework would be applied to churches and other faith groups, but officials were unable to answer.

“Public health officials will carefully monitor each stage for two to four weeks as they assess the evolution of the COVID-19 outbreak to determine if it is necessary to change course to maintain public health,” said Ministry of Health spokesman Christian Hasse.

That phased approach is certainly what bishops and senior officials at the Archdiocese of Toronto have in mind as they begin thinking about a “new normal,” said MacCarthy.

“Open churches for private prayer, then for (weekday) daily Mass depending on the numbers… Then looking at weekend Masses. When that will happen and if they will all happen around the same time — it will likely be a phased-in approach,” he said.

There is a myriad of practical considerations. Will pews be marked to indicate proper social distancing? Will total attendance be capped, with volunteers counting worshippers on their way in and out? Will there be extra Masses to spread the numbers out over the course of a Sunday? Will holy water fonts be filled? How will communion be distributed and by whom? Can choirs perform while standing two metres apart?

None of these questions have been answered, MacCarthy said. But bishops, priests and advisors are talking the issues through.

With nearly 100 parishes in the Archdiocese of Toronto live-streaming Masses and also using streaming platforms for Bible study or prayer groups, there are a number of experiments likely to survive well past the COVID-19 lockdown — from telephone check-ins with seniors to video-conference meetings.

“They’ve been able to reach people who have not been traditionally within a church. They may want to continue with some of those efforts once we reopen,” said MacCarthy.

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