LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s Catholic Church will “tread carefully” after churches start holding public Masses July 4 in order to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
In a message released Thursday, England’s four metropolitan archbishops said they welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Tuesday that worship services could resume “with great joy,” but warned that individual churches that can’t meet health and safety guidelines will remain closed.
“This includes effective hand sanitization, social distancing, and cleaning. We remain committed to making sure these systems of hygiene and infection control meet government and public health standards,” the open letter said. In addition, the Sunday Mass obligation remains suspended for the time being in England.
The message was signed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool, Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, and Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark.
Churches in the United Kingdom were closed to the public on March 23 as part of lockdown measures imposed to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Churches in England have been allowed to open for private prayer since June 15, and the archbishop said this “was an important milestone on our journey towards resuming communal worship,” since those churches have been able to put measures in place to minimize the risk of virus transmission.
When churches were closed, many parishes livestreamed Masses for the public, often drawing more participants than usually showed up during regular weekend services. In addition, Catholic charitable institutions have been at the forefront of efforts to help those worst affected by the pandemic crisis.
The metropolitan archbishops used their letter to thank everyone within the Catholic community in England “for sustaining the life of faith in such creative ways, not least in the family home.”
“We thank our priests for celebrating Mass faithfully for their people, and for the innovative ways in which they have enabled participation through live-streaming and other means. We are grateful for the pastoral care shown by our clergy to those for whom this time of lockdown has been especially difficult, and, in particular, towards those who have been bereaved,” the letter says.
The letter said the lessons learned during the lockdown must be brought to the future life of the Church.
“With the easing of restrictions on worship with congregations, we tread carefully along the path that lies ahead. Our lives have been changed by the experience of the pandemic and it is clear that we cannot simply return to how things were before lockdown,” the archbishops said.
“We therefore need to reflect carefully on how and when we might be able to attend Mass. We cannot return immediately to our customary practices,” the letter continues.
“This next step is not, in any sense, a moment when we are going ‘back to normal’. We ask every Catholic to think carefully about how and when they will return to Mass. Our priests may need to consider whether it is possible to celebrate additional Masses at the weekends. Given there is no Sunday obligation, we ask you to consider the possibility of attending Mass on a weekday. This will ease the pressure of numbers for Sunday celebrations and allow a gradual return to the Eucharist for more people,” the metropolitan archbishops suggested.
Since many people belonging to vulnerable populations – particularly the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions – are still advised to avoid leaving home, the archbishops asked parishes, wherever possible, to continue live-streaming Sunday Mass.
Johnson’s announcement only applies to England, since the devolved governments of the other UK nations are responsible for their own measures for easing lockdown restrictions. Northern Ireland will resume public liturgies on June 29, the same day as the Republic of Ireland. Neither Scotland nor Wales has announced a date for the resumption of public worship services, other private prayer in churches has been allowed in both since June 22.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome