Photo by Michael Swan

Christmas Mass capacity picture rosier in 2021

By 
  • December 19, 2021

Parishes across Canada have the green light to open their doors to more parishioners celebrating the birth of Christ than was allowed last year.

While parishes were virtually shut down for Christmas celebrations in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions and the fact vaccines were non-existent, this year’s picture has changed. The vast majority of Canadians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and churches have returned to a semblance of normal with the loosening of pandemic restrictions over recent months.

However, this situation could turn rapidly depending on the assessments made about the new Omicron variant by federal and provincial health officials. Omicron cases have been detected across Canada and the number of cases are surging rapidly. Health officials expect it may soon be the dominant variant of COVID-19 and calls have been growing for further pandemic restrictions to stem its spread.

In the meantime, dioceses across Canada are welcoming the chance to celebrate Christmas with Catholics in person this year, unlike last year’s virtual services.

British Columbia was the first province to indicate that full-house services would be an option. On Nov. 30, provincial health officer Bonnie Henry opened the doors to full capacity, as long as every congregant is vaccinated. Parishes can only welcome 50 per cent of its capacity if welcoming unvaccinated churchgoers.

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller sent a memo to pastors Dec. 2 urging them to “balance safety and unity” in decision-making. Some options floated for Christmas services include adding more Masses so that more congregants would be welcome while also abiding by stipulations, and adding a service for vaccinated people only to assuage the immune-compromised and parishioners acutely concerned for their safety.

In an updated memo Dec. 9, Miller wrote: “Our guiding principle should be to do all we can to maintain both the safety and unity of the faithful, so we can witness to the world how we show Christian love for one another during difficult and polarizing times.” 

The Archdiocese of Toronto has a better set of cards than this time last year, especially parishes in the City of Toronto and York and Peel Regions that were completely locked down last year. While full capacity won’t be allowed, religious services, as stipulated by Step 3 of the provincial re-opening plan, can welcome as many people as possible as long as physical-distancing requirements are met.

Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine is pleased that the 192 parishes in the archdiocese are not currently in the red zone, unlike last year.

“For many faithful, Christmas Mass will have a special meaning since Montreal was in the red zone last year and attendance at Mass was restricted to 25 people,” said Lépine in a release. “Many people are yearning to commemorate the birth of Jesus once again by taking part in these beautiful and prayerful celebrations.”  

Currently up to 250 people can fill the pews. There is a one-metre distance rule currently in effect.

Saskatchewan’s COVID-19 equation is much rosier compared to 2020 as well. Deacon Eric Gurash, director of communications and evangelization for the Archdiocese of Regina, told The Catholic Register that last year a maximum of 10 people could attend Christmas Mass — essentially a ban — while no such capacity restrictions are in place right now, though some parishes are issuing their own distancing protocols.

“It’s a much more joyous Christmas compared to this time last year for sure, for just being able to gather together in our parishes to celebrate Jesus coming into our lives in our world,” said Gurash.

He adds that while the archdiocese is currently “as confident as you can be during COVID” that no late-breaking restrictions are afoot, the communications and logistical protocols are in place to react on a dime.

Restricted to only drive-in religious services last year, the number of persons who can attend worship services in Manitoba is either at a hard limit at 25 people or a 33-per-cent stipulation depending on the region, while Alberta’s place of worship restrictions are slightly more favourable in 2021 as the 33 per cent of the fire code capacity represents a bump up from to last year’s 15-per-cent rule.

New Brunswick issued a Winter Action Plan to combat COVID-19 that became operational on Dec. 4. Churches can operate at 50-per-cent capacity if no vaccine passport is being utilized. Singing is also outlawed.

As for Nova Scotia, no gathering limits are in effect for places of worship as of Oct. 4, stage five of its re-opening plan.

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