“I once again urge each person to prayerfully consider vaccination, and to discern a decision that will best protect themselves, their loved ones, and the common good,” Riesbeck continued. “We also recognize that the decision to vaccinate must never be coerced, and that some individuals, for matters of health or conscience, may choose not to receive the vaccine.”
The bishop’s letter encouraged Catholics to “remain ever conscious of our mission to spread the joy of the Gospel throughout our diocese and face these new challenges with our gaze fixed firmly on Jesus, who walks with us and never abandons us.”
The Diocese of St. John serves over 115,000 Catholics at 28 parishes, St. Thomas University Fredericton, and an Ordinariate community. Its territory borders the U.S. state of Maine.
New Brunswick’s total population numbers over 750,000 people, about half of whom are Catholic.
There have been 49 Covid-19-related deaths in New Brunswick out of some 3,600 total cases since the pandemic began. There are now 557 active cases, compared to January’s peak of 348. The province recently witnessed its largest single-day report of new COVID cases. About 26 people in the province are currently hospitalized, 15 of whom are in intensive care.
Almost 87% of New Brunswick residents have at least one vaccine dose, while 78% are fully vaccinated. The oldest residents, who tend to be most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infections, are also the most likely to have been vaccinated.
A Sept. 21 bulletin of the Diocese of St. John reported that the provincial health minister has asked faith communities to aim for a 90% vaccination rate. The diocese said that the health minister has asked faith leaders to survey their congregation about their vaccination status.
“This survey will be distributed at Masses this coming weekend, September 25-26, to be completed prior to leaving Mass and left with the parish,” the St. John diocese said. The parish will forward the results to the diocese and will be required to keep a record at the parish.
“If the results of the survey demonstrate that the 90% vaccination rate has not been met, further restrictions on gatherings may be mandated by the province,” said the bulletin.
The diocese cited Sept. 20 press conference remarks by New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs. He said that failure to reach a 90% vaccination rate could mean a return to social distancing and reduced capacity requirements.
As of Sept. 22, masks will be mandatory in all public spaces. These rules explicitly include places of worship.
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While the Diocese of St. John is only requiring proof of vaccination for some church events, and not Mass and the sacraments, the neighboring Archdiocese of Moncton is more strict. It will require proof of vaccination from those age 12 and older attending all religious celebrations, including Masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals, parish and pastoral meetings, catechesis, and social meetings.
Archbishop Valery Vienneau of Moncton on Sept. 17 asked for these measures to be implemented “not only to respect the government's request but above all to help stop the spread of the virus among our population.”
“We would not want one of our places of worship to be the location of a COVID exposure due to our negligence,” Vienneau said. “The Minister of Health is counting on our cooperation.”
The archbishop said volunteers are expected to be at the church doors to ask attendees for full proof of vaccination and to collect their names. This list can be used again each Sunday to avoid repeated requests for proof of vaccination from repeat visitors.
“This list may eventually be requested by the government,” the archbishop noted.
Parish employees who do not seek vaccination must wear a mask at all times and take a COVID test periodically. Any parish office visitor may be asked to wear a mask if not vaccinated.