England's Catholics asked to consider avoiding Sunday Masses amid attendance limits

50033391687 9a7d9c7bb6 k Pews at St George's Cathedral, Southwark, are cleansed after it reopened for private prayer. | Mazur/cbcew.org.uk

England's metropolitan archbishops urged Catholics Thursday to consider going to Mass during the week rather than on Sunday after public liturgies resume July 4. 

In a message to the Catholic community in England June 25, the four Church leaders noted that the number of people permitted to attend Masses would be limited when they resume, 106 days after public Masses were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

"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," they said.

The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Tuesday that churches could reopen for collective worship from July 4.

He told Parliament June 23: "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."

There was initial confusion about whether the 30-person limit applied to Masses. But in their message, the metropolitan archbishops clarified that the figure would be "determined locally."

They said: "It is important to reaffirm that, at present, the obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains suspended. A significant number of churches may remain closed as they are unable to meet the requirements for opening for individual prayer. Fulfilling these requirements is a precondition for any church opening after July 4 for the celebration of Mass with a congregation."

"Please be aware that there will be a limit on the number of people who can attend Mass in our churches. This will be determined locally in accordance with social distancing requirements. 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. This next step is not, in any sense, a moment when we are going 'back to normal.'"

The Church leaders hailed the reopening of churches for individual private prayer June 15, describing it as "an important milestone on our journey towards resuming communal worship." 

Masses in England were suspended from March 20 and churches closed from 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. 

More than 43,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.K. as of June 25, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center -- the third highest recorded figure in the world after the United States and Brazil.

But as cases fall, the government is easing lockdown measures from July 4, reducing the current social distancing requirement of 6ft to 3ft, and permitting pubs, cafes and restaurants to reopen with certain restrictions.

The metropolitan archbishops said that the Catholic community would strive to meet the stringent requirements to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including hand sanitization, social distancing, and rigorous cleaning. 

"Moving forward, there will still be many people who cannot attend Mass in person. We therefore ask parishes, wherever possible, to continue live-streaming Sunday Mass, both for those who remain shielding and vulnerable, and also for those unable to leave home because of advanced age or illness," the metropolitan archbishops said.

"When we return to Mass there will be some differences in how the celebration takes place. For the time being, there will be no congregational singing and Mass will be shorter than usual. None of this detracts from the centrality of our encounter with the Risen Christ in the Eucharist. We ask everyone to respect and follow the guidance that will be issued and the instructions in each church."

Thursday's message marks the second time that the metropolitan archbishops have written jointly to Catholics during the coronavirus pandemic. 

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.

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In the letter, 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."

The June 25 letter was signed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool, Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, and Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark.

Although Cardinal Nichols is the president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, the message was addressed only to the Catholic Community in England.

Catholics in Wales are still waiting to hear when the Welsh Assembly will determine that churches can reopen for public worship. Welsh churches were permitted to reopen for private prayer June 22.

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