Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller sent a 19-page letter to B.C. officials asking for an equitable shake for churches as provinces loosen COVID protocols. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Vancouver

Canadian bishops call out governments over unfair treatment in COVID regulations

  • March 4, 2021

As Quebec movie theatres welcome up to 250 patrons as pandemic protocols begin to loosen, churches remain limited to only 10 people — including the presiding priest — at worship services.

It’s an inequity that has seen the bishops of Quebec’s two largest dioceses call on the province to reconsider re-opening protocols as they apply to churches.

Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine in a Feb. 24 statement argues “if stores and shopping centres are open to the public under compliance with appropriate measures, there is no reason why places of worship should not operate under the same conditions.”

Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, the Archbishop of Quebec, has challenged the Quebec government on multiple occasions over the past year to not ignore the importance of the province’s religious communities, and took to Twitter Feb. 19 to again ask for equitable treatment.

“Let us stand in solidarity with the collective effort in the fight against COVID, but demand fair treatment for communities of faith, whose access to places of worship is limited to 10 people; 250 will be allowed to gather at the cinema!” Lacroix tweeted.

In an interview with The Catholic Register, Lépine emphasized that the preoccupation on the public’s physical health was the sensible call in the early months of the pandemic when so much was unknown about the novel coronavirus. But now is the time to consider a person’s other needs.

“We cannot forget about the needs of physical health, but we also can’t forget psychological needs, spiritual needs and economic needs,” said Lépine. “This notion of talking about considering these other needs of a person was not popular 10 or 12 months ago, but now it is gaining traction.”

It’s a sentiment that is beginning to take hold across the country.

Churches are not asking for special treatment, just a fair shake, Archbishop J. Michael Miller of the Archdiocese of Vancouver said as he engaged in a similar fight on the Pacific coast. The B.C. Catholic reported that on Feb. 19 Miller sent a 19-page letter to B.C. health officials “asking that Catholic churches be permitted to celebrate Mass in-person with COVID-19 safety measures in place and an attendance limit of 10 per cent of capacity.”

In-person worship services have been banned in B.C. since Nov. 19. There have been protests and legal efforts undertaken against this directive, which has been extended three times thus far. 

“While there have been no known COVID-19 transmissions or outbreaks within our churches, we continue to see reports of outbreaks at skiing facilities and local businesses that have been permitted to continue in their operations,” Miller said in his letter.

He also wrote that he has “no doubts that the ban on religious gatherings has had a detrimental effect on the spirituality and mental health of Catholics in British Columbia.”

In Toronto, Neil MacCarthy, director of public relations and communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto, said there “has been a healthy dialogue between the archdiocese and the province throughout the pandemic” and an expectation “places of worship should be treated equitably.” The concern he’s been hearing from faithful and clergy alike is the inconsistencies.

“That’s what we continue to discuss in our dialogue with the province. We have always advocated for a percentage of capacity vs. hard caps (10 people maximum) to ensure fairness,” said MacCarthy. “In most cases, we’ve seen that but since December we’ve been dealing with hard caps.”

A cap of 10 people in a church in the latter part of 2020 led the archdiocese to once again halt public Masses, which had been opened with capacity limits since June after initially being shut down by the first wave of COVID-19.

Since the pandemic’s start, Cardinal Thomas Collins has been adamant the archdiocese would follow the path set by public health officials, and is grateful that public Masses have returned to about 35 per cent of parishes in Canada’s largest diocese as some municipalities have seen health measures loosened. But in a Feb. 24 communique to the faithful, Collins said “we need to worship together and to return to our full sacramental life as soon as possible.”

Like the other bishops, Collins said places of worship need to be “treated equitably by the province,” which a coalition of faith leaders has stressed in a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

“If the government does not address these issues sufficiently, we will be asking for your assistance in contacting our elected officials to amplify our voices,” he told the faithful.

In Winnipeg, Archbishop Richard Gagnon is pleased that Manitoba is trending towards loosening restrictions in recent weeks after a highly unprecedented year. He gives the local governments credit for making tough decision in trying times, but “churches need to be opened up more,” said Gagnon.

“I think everyone is doing their best. I don’t think governments are particularly targeting churches, but they are hard on churches I do agree,” he said.

A number of churches have been fighting back against the strict limitations placed on their services, including Alberta pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church, who will go to trial in May for repeatedly violating COVID restrictions at his parish west of Edmonton. Coates remains in jail after refusing to abide by bail conditions.

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