Many Catholic parishes across France reopened for public Mass last weekend in some hurry and disarray after the government, prompted by the country's chief administrative court, lifted the ban imposed during the coronavirus lockdown.
The interior ministry announced last Friday evening that houses of worship could reopen from that weekend if they observed strict health guidelines, including social distancing that would cut attendance to about one-fourth its normal size.
After missing 10 Sundays, many Catholic churches reopened promptly, having already organised seating and bought face masks and hand gel. Others opted to wait a week until Pentecost Sunday for more time to prepare and inform parishioners.
“Every bishop must see with his priests which churches can open right away and which need more time to get organised,” bishops conference spokesman Fr Thierry Magnin said.
Other faiths were more cautious. The French Muslim Council said the official decision caused confusion because it came two days before the Islamic feast of Eid al-Fitr that the Council had decided not to reopen mosques to celebrate.
“It looks better to wait until 3 June,” said council president Mohammad Moussaoui, noting social distancing would be difficult if the first public prayers at a mosque came on the feast day after the fasting month of Ramadan.
Orthodox Christian churches will also wait until 3 June, the date first set by Paris but challenged in court by traditionalist Catholics eager to reopen for Pentecost. Jewish and Protestant leaders also urged prudence and advised their congregations to wait until June.
The court agreed with the traditionalists and demanded an earlier reopening date. Many parishes took this as a signal to start preparing for Mass again.
In a well-staffed diocese such as Paris, parishes added Masses to make up for the limits on attendance. This often meant an extra Saturday vigil Mass and two additional services on Sunday, something rural dioceses with few priests cannot offer.
Reopening has led to tensions between the government, which stresses health concerns, and some Catholics citing their religious right to assemble. The bishops conference did not support this view, but was overtaken by the Conseil d'Etat's court order.
“The government took us by surprise, and on a Saturday,” exclaimed Bishop Bruno Grua of Saint Flour in the Auvergne region, which will resume public Mass at Pentecost.