Catholics in New Zealand are preparing to return to public celebrations of the liturgy on Friday, after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that services could commence that day with up to 100 people in attendance.

New Zealand is easing out of its COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown after what is considered one of the most successful campaigns to combat the pandemic.

In a May 26 pastoral letter, the bishops of New Zealand compared the lockdown to the days between the Ascension and Pentecost, when “the apostles returned to the closed room.”

“This year Christians around the world entered a ‘closed room’ due to the pandemic. For some of you this has enabled a graced time of prayer and reflection. For others it has been a time to refocus and put lives in order. For some the ‘closed room’ has led to family tensions or concerns about future employment. For others still this has been a time when they have allowed their faith to drift. Now the ‘closed room’ of our churches is coming to an end,” the bishops wrote.

The pastoral letter said the Church was rejoicing as it takes “these first steps towards returning to some semblance of normality.”

“The sacrifices we have made as a nation have averted what we have seen overseas. As we emerge from our ‘closed room’ and return to our churches and community engagement we take this opportunity to thank those who protected and supported our sick, vulnerable and, indeed, all of us throughout the lockdown. We thank all those in our faith communities who have worked tirelessly to connect with parishioners offering spiritual support,” the bishops said.

The letter noted that there are still restrictions in place to protect the vulnerable and elderly, and said each parish is going to have to determine how it will offer Masses while ensuring health guidelines are kept.

“This may mean some churches will not open immediately. It may mean that there are more people wanting to attend Mass than can be accommodated. We ask you to be patient and understanding while your parish leadership determine what will happen in your parish,” the letter said.

In instructions to parish leaders, the bishops listed several other provisions in place to prevent the spread of the virus:

— At the Sign of Peace, people should avoid shaking hands or other contact with one another, and instead smile, nod or bow to one another.

— Holy Communion is not to be distributed from the chalice.

— Communion is only to be distributed in the hand, not on the tongue.

— Holy water is to be removed from vessels at the church door.

The bishops also asked that those who are in high risk groups, those who are sick, and those who are afraid to remain at home, and added that the Sunday Mass obligation continues to be suspended in New Zealand.