Through word of mouth and social media, about 150 people gathered outside Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral on Nov. 22 to pray for the re-opening of churches to public worship, three days after the province closed places of worship because of rising COVID-19 numbers. Photo by Agnieszka Ruck

‘Spiritual pain’ grows as churches close

  • November 24, 2020

The second wave of COVID-19 has hit many Canadian Catholics where it hurts most — the shutting down of public Masses. Churches from coast to coast are feeling the impact, with the suspension of public Masses in and around Canada’s most populous city, Toronto, as well as those in Halifax, N.S., and the provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba.

The cancellations come in the wake of provincial directives to battle the deadly and stubborn coronavirus that is forcing further restrictions on public gatherings across the nation. 

In the Archdiocese of Toronto, public Masses in Toronto and Peel Region were cancelled effective Nov. 23 after the Ontario government limited attendance in churches in the “lockdown” zone to 10 people. That number includes priests and support staff, which led to the directive from the archdiocese to cancel the Masses. 

“I am deeply disappointed that, in some regions of the archdiocese, we must restrict participation in the sacraments,” Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, said in a statement. “This will inflict a great spiritual pain upon those who safely and with great dedication have been drawing spiritual strength to sustain them, and to help them to serve those suffering in this pandemic. As we have demonstrated our ability to safely worship together, I trust that we will soon be able fully to resume public worship.”

The rules stay in place for 28 days, though they can be reviewed before then.

In Vancouver, Archbishop J. Michael Miller said he was caught off guard by the B.C. government’s announcement on Nov. 19 that public worship in the province was banned until Dec. 7, particularly after he and other faith leaders spoke with government officials a day earlier.

“I was prepared there were going to be further restrictions,” the archbishop told archdiocesan senior director of communications Makani Marquis.

What he didn’t anticipate was churches being closed to services for two weeks while everything from restaurants and bars to cinemas and dance classes would remain open.

“It’s just puzzling that … no evidence was offered at the press conference about why religious gatherings were in some ways singled out. That is a little disturbing.”

Parishes have been “scrupulous” about following health protocols by sanitizing, limiting worshippers and marking off physically-distanced pews, he said. “We have an exemplary record, and it’s disappointing that that wasn’t acknowledged.”

Churches in B.C. had a 50-person limit for Masses previously.

The Nova Scotia government is the latest to clamp down on gatherings with rising COVID-19 numbers. On Nov. 24, the province decreased the maximum number of people in a gathering to five in the counties of Halifax and Hants, leading the Archdioces of Halifax-Yarmouth to suspend in-person Masses in those areas. In Manitoba, churches have been closed since Nov. 12. 

The new measures in Ontario overtake an initiative by the Archdiocese of Toronto on Nov. 17, when it instructed its pastors in Toronto, Peel and York regions to limit the number in churches to a maximum of 50 beginning Nov. 24. That was to replace the previous rule of 30-per-cent capacity in churches. Under the new rules, York Region churches will continue under the 30-per-cent rule.

Collins encouraged pastors to keep churches open whenever possible for private prayer and for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Weddings, funerals and baptisms will be restricted to 10 persons.

The cardinal also urged parishioners to view livestreamed and televised Masses. He will continue to celebrate a livestreamed Mass each morning at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica.

In his statement, Collins also praised first responders and frontline workers in the pandemic fight, and the “heroic” work that has been done to keep churches safe, noting that more than 1.3 million people have attended Mass in the archdiocese since churches re-opened in June following a three-month closure.

In B.C., the new restrictions come just as The B.C. Catholic released a study of the pandemic’s effects on sacraments and parish finances. The archbishop’s office has estimated an average of 17,700 people a week were attending Mass at local parishes on weekends in October, which is a nearly 80-per-cent drop from the number of Catholics at Sunday Masses at the same time last year.

Sunday offerings are also down, with forecasts of a 20- to 25-per-cent decrease in weekly giving by the end of the year.

(With files from The B.C. Catholic)

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect additional government restrictions in Nova Scotia.

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