LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Public Masses will be suspended across Britain in light of the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

As of March 18, over 2600 people were confirmed to have the coronavirus in the UK, and 104 have died. Schools in Northern Ireland closed on Wednesday, with schools in the rest of Britain shutting on Friday in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

Public authorities across the world have been encouraging a ban on all large gatherings of people, include worship services. Public Masses have been halted in many European countries as well as several U.S. states.

The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales announced on Wednesday that all public liturgies will cease from Friday evening, March 20.

“Because of the situation the Church finds herself in, the obligation for the faithful to attend Holy Mass on a Sunday or Holy day of Obligation is removed, until further notice,” the bishops’ conference said in a statement.

“Priests (parish priest and assistant priests) who hold parochial office should continue to celebrate Mass in a church within their parish without the faithful on a daily basis. Other priests (i.e. retired from office or entrusted with a non-parochial ministry) may celebrate Mass without the faithful in a church, chapel or their private home.  Deacons should not participate in these celebrations,” the statement said.

“The continuing celebration of Mass ensures that the faithful can join in spiritual communion with the priests of the Church.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (1364): As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out. Daily liturgical resources for those at home, including those for making a “Spiritual Communion” with the priest, will be available on the CBCEW website,” it continued.

The bishops said that wherever possible, churches will remain open, especially on Sundays, for individual private prayer, and said that live-streaming of Mass will be made widely available.

The statement said that baptisms should be deferred until such time that the public health advice is that congregations can gather safely, but added that in cases of necessity, baptisms should be celebrated “with all the hygiene precautions that have been laid down by the Church in its COVID-19 advice.”

Meanwhile, the Sacrament of confession “may be offered on request as long as hygiene and social distancing requirements are observed (eg a physical barrier between the penitent and the priest such as a grille and cloth).”

The bishops’ conference statement said that marriages should be deferred “if possible,” but in “the most pressing circumstances,” those present for the marriage should be restricted to the celebrant, bride and groom and immediate family, and if necessary, the legal Registrar.

As for the anointing of the sick, the statement said no pastoral visits should be made to people who are self-isolating until the isolation period ends, but these people should be offered phone support.

“When anointing the sick, the Oil of the Sick can be applied using a cotton bud which can be burned afterwards (one end for the head and the other for the hands) and the priest extend his hands over the sick person for laying on of hands, without physical contact.  his has been confirmed as a valid mode of celebrating the sacraments which involve “laying on of hands.”  Visits to people in care homes or hospitals should follow advice from the staff on infection control,” the statement said.

The statement said there “must be great pastoral sensitivity” around funerals, which should take place “at the graveside or at a crematorium, subject to the conditions laid down by the cemetery or crematorium authorities.”

Memorial masses should be postponed until liturgies with congregations are allowed to resume.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s Catholic bishops announced public Masses will cease, effective Thursday, March 19.

“Priests will continue to celebrate Holy Mass in private with the particular intention of praying for those suffering from Covid-19 and those who care for them. Our Churches will remain open for personal prayer and we would encourage parish priests to welcome individuals who seek consolation and encouragement from the Lord. We also ask our priests to be available for the reception of the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion as and when they are needed especially for the sick and housebound,” the statement from the Scottish bishops said.

“For the celebration of baptisms, funeral Masses and weddings we would ask that only close family are invited,” the statement continued.

“We are all facing much uncertainty, anxiety and an unpredictable future. This situation touches on every aspect of our lives, individually and collectively. Sacred Scripture calls us repeatedly not to fear and to look to the help that comes to us from above. We are called to support one another in every way we can, especially those who are most vulnerable, through age or underlying conditions. Even in the midst of any necessary ‘distancing’ we must stand by each other,” said the Scottish bishops’ statement.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.