English Catholic leader welcomes return of public Masses from July 4

50009527737 eda0f8550d k Cardinal Nichols prays at Westminster Cathedral with the Archbishop of Canterbury June 15, 2020, the day England’s churches reopened for private prayer. | Mazur/cbcew.org.uk

An English cardinal welcomed the government's decision Tuesday to permit the resumption of public Masses from July 4. 

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, applauded the June 23 announcement by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

Johnson told Parliament: "I know that many have mourned the closure of places of worship. And this year Easter, Passover, and Eid all occurred during the lockdown. So I'm delighted that places of worship will be able to reopen for prayer and services, including weddings, with a maximum of 30 people, all subject to social distancing."

In a statement Tuesday, Nichols said: "This is welcome news for members of all religions in England. I thank all who have worked hard to bring this about, not least my fellow religious leaders."

"As Catholics, we now look forward to being able to celebrate Mass together again from July 4. We have waited with patience and longing for this moment, understanding the importance of protecting the health of people in our society. Now we are full of anticipation that we will be able again to take part together in the Eucharist, which lies at the centre of our faith."

The government permitted churches in England to reopen for individual private prayer June 15. Catholics visiting churches must follow strict rules to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed 42,731 lives in the U.K. as of June 23.  

The cardinal said it was important that Catholics continued to abide by safety measures, including social distancing. 

"Our own detailed guidance will be distributed around dioceses and parishes so everyone can be confident that they may come to Mass securely and understand the part they are to play in protecting each other from any remaining risk of infection," he said.

Churches in England closed March 23. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the government has permitted churches to host funerals, under strict conditions, and to livestream liturgies, but not to perform baptisms or weddings. 

In May, Nichols put pressure on the government to set a date for reopening churches for individual private prayer.

In a May 14 radio interview he called for "a bit more sensitivity from the government" towards the concerns of Catholics. In his Pentecost Sunday homily May 31, he questioned why car showrooms were being permitted to reopen ahead of churches.

Other English bishops also appealed for churches to reopen, including Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark, Bishop Mark O'Toole of Plymouth, and Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth.

The bishops in turn came under pressure to reopen churches. A video by lay Catholics appealing for churches to be reopened has been viewed almost 11,000 times since it was posted April 22.

In a May 1 message, the metropolitan archbishops of England and Wales acknowledged the pain of Catholics who cannot receive the sacraments because of the coronavirus lockdown. 

In the message, entitled "A People who Hope in Christ," the archbishops said that while livestreamed Masses nourished faith, they were no substitute for public liturgies.

"We are deeply moved by the Eucharistic yearning expressed by so many members of the faithful. We thank you sincerely for your love for the Lord Jesus, present in the sacraments and supremely so in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass," they wrote. 

"The bishops and priests of every diocese are remembering you and your loved ones at Mass each day in our churches as we pray 'in hope of health and well-being.' We thank our priests for this faithfulness to their calling."

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In his statement Tuesday, Nichols said: "The past few months have been a time of fashioning new patterns of prayer, new ways of exploring and enriching our faith and vigorous ways of reaching out to those in need. We can build on these, forgetting nothing of the graces we have been given."

"Yet now, with the experience of opening our churches for individual prayer already gained, this return to the more normal patterns of worship will be of great importance to all Catholics."

"This time of our 'Eucharistic fast' has made our hearts grow in longing for that moment when we can come together and receive again the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. That moment is now very near and for that we thank God."

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