Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth wrote to the people of his diocese on Sunday encouraging them to return to churches for Mass and private prayer.
He wrote to Catholics and “to everyone of good will, to those ‘with ears to hear’, to anyone searching for God, and to all who wish to meet His Son, Jesus Christ and to know more about His Gospel. I say to you all: Come back! Come back to Mass! Come back to church for private prayer! Come back to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament! You are truly welcome – we have missed you!”
He called the recent months of the coronavirus pandemic ‘extraordinary’, and noted the hard work of medical staff and key workers, as well as what has been done in the Diocese of Portsmouth by priests, parishioners, and chaplains.
“Now that schools and many others are returning to work, let us keep up this good work,” he exhorted. “Let us keep safe. And let us ask the Lord for an end to the pandemic, the invention of a vaccine and the restoration or ordinary life.”
Bishop Egan wrote that “in inviting you back to Mass, I am aware that in some places and for some of you – those self-shielding, the sick, the vulnerable – this will not yet be possible. Moreover, we are aware too that the infection-rate is varying, and we might even face a local lockdown. Indeed, for everyone it will require care, prudence and adjustments. It might mean attending Mass on a weekday instead of a Sunday.”
He indicated that most of the churches in the diocese are now open, with “stringent safety procedures,” and asked for volunteers to assist in these efforts.
“The pandemic has shown us how fragile modern life is,” he reflected. “It has caused us to review our priorities. It has made us face our mortality and the question of God.”
The bishop said that “it is in our churches that the Lord sanctifies, teaches and guides us, uniting us together, giving us the Sacraments of eternal life, and sending us out on mission and service.”
While many “followed Mass online,” he noted that “online has its place and we thank God for all the work done to enable this. But online is not the same as ‘inline’ and being there. It’s not the same as actually receiving Jesus in Holy Communion. It’s not the same as participating in the presence of the eucharistic community.”
“This is why I say: Come back to the Lord to be nourished by His Word and His Sacraments,” Bishop Egan exclaimed.
While the canonical obligation to assist at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is suspended in the Portsmouth diocese, he asked, “surely, we do not follow Jesus our Lord and Master simply out of habit or duty? No, we follow Him because we love Him. We follow Him because He has called us. We follow Him because He is our Saviour: He has laid down His life for us.”
Beginning September 14, England has imposed a “rule of six” on both indoor and outdoor social gatherings, including in private homes. Gatherings of more than six persons are not allowed, though the rule to not apply to places of worship, as well as schools, workplaces, gyms, and organized team sports.
Individuals participating in gatherings of seven or more face a fine, starting at £100 ($129). The UK police minister has encouraged people to report their neighbours who have had gatherings of more than six.
The government permitted public Masses to resume in England beginning July 4. Masses had been suspended March 20, and churches were closed beginning March 23.
The UK bishops ordered the closing of churches in March, even though houses of worship were exempted from the government’s stay-at-home order. Churches were allowed to reopen for private prayer from June 15.
In a March 19 pastoral letter, Bishop Egan had written to his flock saying, “let us keep our churches open for prayer,” while suspending the public celebration of Mass. He issued a decree that day stating that “all churches should be kept open during the day for the faithful to visit and to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.”
In a March 24 decree “in response to new government restrictions” he stated that “all churches and chapels in the Diocese of Portsmouth are to be closed with immediate effect until further notice.”
According to the World Health Organization, as of September 6 the UK had 344,168 cumulative cases of Covid-19, and 41,549 deaths.