The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference has published its Framework Document for a return to the public celebration of Mass and the Sacraments.
The new measures recommend a cap on numbers allowed to enter churches and list church items that should be temporarily removed. The guidelines also stipulate that, during Communion, priests should wear a “face-covering” and that communicants should receive the Blessed Sacrament in the hand.
Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that the Irish Government could “accelerate” the third phase of its plan to lift lockdown restrictions and allow Masses in the Republic of Ireland to resume on June 29, over two weeks earlier than previously planned.
The devolved administration in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, allowed churches in Northern Ireland to reopen last month but no date has been announced for the return of public services in churches there.
Whilst making some allowance for the differing situations of churches, the Irish bishops’ plans state: “No church should be opened for public prayer or worship until satisfactory arrangements, as indicated in this Framework, have been put in place.”
One of the paramount concerns of the document is social distancing. In accord with public health advice, the bishops’ advise people to stay two metres apart in churches, which they say should inform the number of people allowed to enter a church and the arrangements made both for seating during Mass and for queuing during Communion.
The bishops’ also state that “Communion should not be given under both kinds, and should be received in the hand,” whilst they encourage churches to omit the sign of peace and the offertory procession.
The guidelines require churches to ensure that holy water fonts are emptied and that “reusable prayer books, hymnals, hymn sheets” are no longer distributed.
They also call on parishes to “identify volunteers” to help ensure that these measures are adhered to and that adequate signage and “sanitising materials” are available at church entrances and exits.
Earlier this week, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, appealed for the “younger members of our parishes” to volunteer when Masses resume in Ireland, because these were roles that “some of our older members may be unable to fulfil at this time.”
The bishops’ Framework Document notes that the “dispensation from the Sunday and Holy Day obligation is extended for the time being” and they particularly encourage older and more vulnerable members to “stay at home and, if possible, participate, as now, via webcam, social media,television, or radio.”
In their statement accompanying the new guidelines, the Irish bishops say that the “resumption of public worship should not mean simply going back to where we were before.”
“We have been through testing times, but these months have opened up new possibilities for the future mission of the Church,” they said. “We earnestly hope that what we have learned – as individuals, in the domestic churches of our family homes, and as ministers of Charity, Word and Sacrament – will enrich the life of our Church and increase the joy of our celebrations as the doors of our churches open slowly once more.”