The Bishops’ Conference has told parishes in England and Wales to suspend Masses if there are a large number of cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, in the local community.
Catholics are asked not to kiss or touch the Cross on Good Friday or relics if the situation worsens, or if there is a case specifically linked to a parish community.
Under those circumstances the chalice should be withdrawn and Communion should be received in the hand. The physical sign of peace should be suspended, holy water removed from stoups, the collection plate should not be passed around and congregations should not share hymn books or missals.
A revised version of the bishops’ guidance, published last weekend, details three levels of response for parishes to follow if the epidemic worsens. Further resources are being drafted, and a joint FAQ has been prepared with the Church of England.
At stage one of the Catholic bishops’ guidelines, which the bishops’ conference said is the current stage, where there are very few cases in the UK and no cases in local parishes, communities should continue to maintain good hygiene and sanitise their hands as they enter church. If there are a number of cases in the local community or a case is specifically linked to a parish, the community should move to stage two of the guidance, which includes restricting Communion to one kind, suspending physical veneration and the sign of peace and catering at gatherings where people share crockery. At stage two, vulnerable people, including the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, should stay away from large parish gatherings.
“It is unlikely, but not impossible, that we will get to the third stage,” the guidance states, at either deanery, diocesan or national level. At that stage Mass and public liturgies should be suspended. “We will know we are at this stage because public authorities will give general advice on suspending large public gatherings,” the bishops advised.
The guidance came as further cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the UK, bringing the total to 40 at the time of going to press, and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, chaired a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee.
In Ireland the Church has already recommended that the Sign of Peace and communion on the tongue should be suspended. In its guidance, the Archdiocese of Dublin advises that holy water fonts should not be used. It also recommends that the use of communal vessels should be suspended to minimise the risk of spread of infection. Only the celebrant should drink from the chalice, while other priests, ministers of the Eucharist, and members of the congregation should refrain.