Catholic churches in England and Wales are preparing to suspend the celebration of Mass in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, according to Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
The Archbishop of Westminster warned that Masses might have to be cancelled should the disease spread further and that in the Catholic Church: “We follow official [Government] and are preparing for the right thing and the right time.”
But he also said that the Church had a practical solution should the need arise to stop celebrating Mass in front of large congregations: “We can stream these celebrations and then people can join in and follow Mass through that virtual link.”
The Cardinal explained the measures during an interview on Saturday on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme where he discussed the Church’s pastoral and practical response to the crisis with presenter Nick Robinson.
The Cardinal said: “For some time we have been trying to minimise those points at which infection might be passed on. This is a long haul and we’re taking it gently and steadily”.
He pointed out that churches had already abandoned the sign of peace and that it was “simple and sensible” to make another gesture such as a bow to fellow Mass-goers. And he acknowledged the dangers of Holy Communion when there is a highly contagious disease in the community and it is carried in the saliva in 90 per cent of cases, according to scientific evidence.
Some hours before the interview in a message to priests of his Westminster diocese, he had written: “We should do our utmost to encourage people to receive Holy Communion in the hand. This, too, is an ancient tradition of the Church and undoubtedly safer at this time.
“I would add here, that in exercising their rights, the faithful are expected to 'take into account the common good of the Church, the rights of others and their own duties towards others' (Canon 223). This applies to the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue.
"If there are those who still wish to insist on this right, then I suggest that they receive Holy Communion at a distinct time, perhaps after Mass. Then, in giving them Holy Communion you can exercise proper precautions, such as washing your hands after each communicant so as to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. Please undertake this ministry yourself, not delegating it to an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist”.
While churches may yet cancel Mass, Cardinal Nichols assured listeners that Catholic churches were large spaces and would stay open for individual prayer. “The churches are places where people can pray and there’s no health risk and that’s important”.
During the interview, Nick Robinson asked the Cardinal about the role of priests should people be dying of Covid-19, or coronavirus, given that for Catholics a deathbed visit is a very important moment.
“It is possible to continue with it”, the cardinal said. “That is the official advice we are getting. We will visit people in their homes taking the right kind of precautions. In very extreme circumstances that physical presence might be impossible but for the vast majority we will be able to bring that comfort and consolation of the life after death that awaits us all”.
Cardinal Nichols urged people to have a generous response to others, particularly the elderly, during the crisis and help those in need. He observed that the key principles that British society has deeply rooted in its culture are based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition of honouring one’s father and mother and loving your neighbour.
“We have to resist fear and selfishness”, he said. “We have to nurture and treasure the elderly and to think of others even when we go shopping”.
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