Quebec Premier Francois Legault.

Outdoor Mass circumvents Quebec church restrictions

  • January 13, 2022

In the weeks since Quebec’s indoor Mass ban took effect, some Catholics are making do by embracing the outdoor religious celebrations available to them.

Evelyn Campbell said she has heard that daily services outside of Montreal’s Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral attract crowds greater than 100 people despite the chilly January weather.

“What strikes me profoundly is during the consecration, everyone knelt on the ice and snow,” said Campbell. “That shows you how important the Eucharist is for all Catholics. It is essential for all our lives.”

But while adopting the shift to open-air worship, Campbell is still advocating for parishes to open their doors to parishioners again. Each Thursday, she leads an online prayer meeting for religious freedom. She and fellow parishioner Anna Farrow, executive director of the English Speaking Catholic Council, launched these sessions with a 40-hour vigil on Dec. 20 in response to churches having to institute a vaccination passport program.

Campbell said it was “disappointing” to learn churches would be closed for all indoor activities — the lone exception being funerals with 25 or fewer in attendance — considering their essential societal role.

“Churches are essential, and we’ve always been told they’re essential and they should be treated as such by the government,” she said. “It appears to us that the government is erroneously lumping churches together with cinemas and theatres. Churches should be in their own category.”

Neither Premier Francois Legault’s government nor the province’s public health leadership has indicated a timeframe or a scenario that would result in the resumption of indoor Masses.

Msgr. Pierre Murray, secretary-general of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec, said the bishops understand why the new protocols were put in place just before Christmas.

“The bishops understand the critical situation of the pandemic in the province,” said Murray. “There are thousands of people in the hospital. We also noticed that attendance at Christmas Eve Mass was low, even though we could gather as much as 250. It was much lower than that. The bishops acknowledge the government’s decision and hope when the situation improves that it won’t take too long for the Church to reopen.”

Murray added that a talking point brought up during the bishops’ dialogue with pandemic authorities is the Quebec Catholic community’s flawless — so far — record of not being a hotspot for COVID spread. No Catholic parish has spawned a COVID-19 outbreak since places of worship opened in late June 2020. However, in early December, with Omicron emerging, media outlets reported that one person died and dozens became ill because of an outbreak at the Good News Chapel in the St-Léonard borough of Montreal.

Murray said he would ask that people angry about the restrictions adopt a perspective of sacrifice.

“We have to see the closure of churches for a few weeks as kind of a sacrifice of love that we make towards one another, not only to protect ourselves but each other, particularly the most weakened among ourselves,” he said.

Robert Maranda, a spokesperson for Quebec’s ministry of health and social services, said by email that a blanket ban for indoor Masses and other gatherings is necessary to tame Omicron.

“A set of measures had to be put in place in order to limit social contact as much as possible,” he said. “The arrival of the fifth wave with the Omicron variant called for a series of strong measures. Thus, a set of activities held inside were closed, rather than placing restrictions on capacity.”

Campbell hopes religious leaders in the province are maintaining an active dialogue with the government about the situation.

“We hope the bishops communicate with the government to reopen churches soon. We wonder, as laypeople, if the government is infringing upon our right to practise our religion by closing churches? We’re not lawyers, so we can’t answer that.”

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