LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the Primate of All Ireland, has welcomed the Northern Ireland Executive’s decision to allow public worship to restart on June 29, the same date established by the Republic of Ireland.

The United Kingdom closed all churches on March 23 as part of the lockdown to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have control over the re-opening of their respective countries.

Northern Ireland opened churches in mid-May for private prayer; England only did so on June 15.

“It is particularly helpful that parishes in cross-border communities will be able to plan together for a safe return to Mass around the same time,” Martin said in a statement on June 18.

“I have been heartened by the amount of preparation which is already ongoing in our parishes to ensure that our sacred spaces will be as safe as possible when we begin to gather again together in prayer. I expect that we will be beginning in a cautious way at first, and there will be a need for ongoing patience and careful monitoring of the situation,” he continued.

The Irish bishops held their summer meeting last week – virtually, due to the pandemic – and published a Framework Document to assist parishes to prepare for the safe celebration of public liturgies, including a checklist focusing on initial steps, the need to follow the most up-to-date public health advice at all times, how do schedule confirmations so they meet social distancing requirements.

“In recent days, having spoken to priests across the dioceses of Armagh and Dromore, it is clear to me that there is a strong desire from our people, religious and priests to be able to celebrate the Eucharist and have access to the other sacraments, especially baptism, marriage and reconciliation,” Martin said.

The archbishop commended parishes for reaching out to parishioners in “very difficult circumstances” during the lockdown, including arranging the livestreaming of Masses and other prayers.

“Since March, we have also been alert to God’s presence in the lonely and the suffering. Sadly, the pandemic has brought great hardship to many families whose loved ones have died because of the virus. In a lot of cases it was not possible for family members to be by their side, or to be present at their funeral. God knows our grief and how much we need strength, courage, consolation and comfort at this time,” Martin concluded.

Northern Ireland has had 4,866 total confirmed positive tests for COVID-19, with 544 people dying with the coronavirus. However, the death rate has been falling drastically, and only one person died of the disease in the 24 hours before 2 pm on Friday.

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