The Catholic Church in England and Wales will suspend public Masses and other liturgies from this Friday, 20 March to delay the spread of the coronavirus.
The decision, which was made in consultation with the bishops of all the dioceses and archdioceses of England and Wales, was announced on Wednesday.
Priests who hold parochial office should continue to celebrate Mass in a church within their parish, daily, without the faithful. Other priests may also celebrate Mass without the faithful. Deacons should not participate in these celebrations.
Confessions may be heard if social distancing is observed - for example, if the priest and penitent are separated by a grille and a cloth.
Baptisms, First Confessions, First Holy Communion and Confirmations should also be postponed. Weddings should be deferred, or restricted to the celebrant, bride, groom and immediate family.
Pastoral visits should not be made to people who are self-isolating, but priests are urged to offer phone support. The sick can be anointed without physical contact, using a cotton bud for the Oil of the Sick that should be burned afterwards.
With great pastoral sensitivity, funeral services must be restricted to the graveside or at a crematorium. Masses in memoriam may be celebrated when congregations are allowed to gather again.
“In response to the coronavirus pandemic, so many aspects of our lives must change. This includes the ways in which we publicly express our faith,” the bishops’ conference said on Wednesday in a letter to Catholics in England and Wales.
“It’s very clear that, following official advice and in order to keep each other safe, save lives and support the NHS, at this time we must not gather for public acts of worship in our churches. This will begin from Friday evening, 20 March 2020, until further notice," the letter reads.
The letter, which was signed by the the President of the Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and the Vice-President, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, emphasises that Catholics in England and Wales are dispensed under Church law from the Sunday obligation to attend a Mass.
Churches will remain open where possible, they stress.
“Although we won’t be gathering for public acts of worship, our churches will remain open. They are not closing. They will be a focal point of prayer, where you will find solace and strength.
“In visiting our churches at this time, we will observe with great care the practices of hygiene and the guidance on social distancing.
However, the celebration of Mass, Sunday by Sunday and day by day, will take place without a public congregation.”
The letter also calls attention to the importance of charity, and of Catholics' duty to care for one another and the most vulnerable in our communities.
"There are so many ways in which we are to do this: being attentive to the needs of our neighbour, especially the elderly and vulnerable; contributing to our local food banks; volunteering for charitable initiatives and organisations; simply keeping in touch by all the means open to us," the letter reads.
Catholics are also urged to continue to participate in the spiritual life of the Church, particularly through prayer.
"Knowing that the Mass is being celebrated; joining in spiritually in that celebration; watching the live-streaming of the Mass; following its prayers at home; making an act of spiritual communion: this is how we share in the Sacrifice of Christ in these days. These are the ways in which we will sanctify Sunday, and indeed every day," the bishops write.
"During these disturbing and threatening times, the rhythm of the prayer of the Church will continue. Please play your part in it. The effort of daily kindness and mutual support for all will continue and increase. Please play your part in this too. For your commitment to this, we thank you."
Information about the live-streaming of the celebration of Mass will be made widely available in dioceses. A fine example of this is from The National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, the bishops said, which will continue its full liturgical programme, and which will be available to all via the Internet (www.walsingham.org.uk)
The Catholic bishops in Scotland have this morning announced that all public Masses are suspended. An announcement on the coronavirus crisis is expected from the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales this morning.
In a statement, the Scottish bishops said the move was "unprecedented" and will take effect from tomorrow.
Priests will continue to celebrate Mass in private, praying for those suffering from Covid-19 and those who care for them.
Churches will remain open for personal prayer and parish priests are asked to welcome individuals who seek consolation and encouragement from the Lord and to be available for the reception of the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion as and when they are needed especially for the sick and housebound.
For the celebration of baptisms, funeral Masses and weddings, the bishops asked that only close family are invited.
The bishops’ statement also encourages Catholics where possible to access the live streaming of Holy Mass from local parishes which have that facility.
They advise that Holy Week liturgies may be curtailed but ask Catholics to remain together in spirit and in prayer and to join with all Scotland’s Churches in a National Day of Prayer this Sunday 22nd March, Mothering Sunday, "to pray for our country and our world in this time of need".
The Church in Wales has also suspended all services. The Church of England and other churches announced similar measures yesterday.
The Tablet has an online list of useful spiritual and other resources during the Covid-19 pandemic.