The Irish bishops have issued their guidance to priests and parishes on the resumption of public worship in which they stress that “in all circumstances the safety and health of people, ministers, and priests must be paramount”.
Last Friday the Government announced it was accelerating the reopening of the country, bringing forward the date for the resumption of public worship to the 29 June from 20 July.
On Tuesday, following an online meeting of all of the Irish hierarchy on Monday, the Irish Bishops' Conference issued their Framework Document for a return to the public celebration of Mass and the Sacraments.
Under the new guidelines the bishops have set out a checklist for churches on managing social distancing, hand sanitising, the restriction of numbers in a church, distributing communion, confession, baptisms and catering for people with special needs.
Dispensation from the Sunday and Holy Day obligation is to be extended.
On the Communion, the bishops recommend that priests and Ministers of the Eucharist “should wear a face-covering while distributing Communion” and that Communion should be received in the hand only and be restricted to the Communion host. They must also visibly sanitise their hands both before and after the distribution of Communion.
The guidelines appeal for care to be taken to avoid contamination of hosts which are to be consecrated and that only a sufficient number of hosts for each Mass should be consecrated.
A small table should be provided at each point of distribution of Communion with a bottle of sanitise to enable the priest/minister to re-sanitise their hands if necessary during the distribution of Communion.
Numbers attending Masses, communions and confirmations, will be tightly restricted in line with social distancing requirements of two metres. In their statement, the hierarchy stress that physical distancing must be applied as people enter and leave churches.
The checklist on social distancing and hygiene protocols requires churches to clearly indicate the areas where people can sit by closing off rows of seats, and allowing one person to sit at the end of each free row, though those from the same household can sit together.
Every church must have stewards to assist people and direct them to available seats and churches must provide clear advice on physical distancing outside as people wait to enter and sanitise their hands.
The bishops’ recommendations require churches to keep all their holy water fonts empty and to provide hand sanitisers at all entrances and exits.
In their statement, the bishops appealed for “patience, perseverance and self-sacrifice”. They said the prescriptions contained in the Framework Document “will only be effective if we have the generous support of volunteers who will help to plan, implement and manage the transition back to full parish life and the celebration of the sacraments.” They appealed to younger members of parishes to get involved.
The Framework was developed after “extensive consultation” across the dioceses of Ireland and takes cognisance of the most up-to-date public health advice, the hierarchy said.
Diocesan bishops are being encouraged to put in place appropriate mechanisms for the implementation and verification of the guidelines.
The bishops acknowledge that the guidelines may need to be adapted in some cases, depending on factors such as the capacity and layout of churches and the size of the parish/church community.
“No church should be opened for public prayer or worship until satisfactory arrangements, as indicated in this Framework, have been put in place,” the document states.
The bishops said they were also very conscious of the demands that the transition will place upon priests, “many of whom may still need to remain shielded from the virus”.
Speaking to RTE’s Today with Sarah McInerney Show, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said it is important that parishes are ready. “It is not just a matter of opening doors,” he underlined and he said parishes may need to follow the system of online booking introduced by some parishes in the USA.
He said there would be no big confirmation ceremonies with a full church but that parishes would take on the organisation and planning of the sacrament with families and there would be numerous ceremonies spread out over time. “There is a huge interest and demand from families who want their children to make their confirmation and from the children themselves,” he said.
In relation to Communion, the Archbishop of Dublin said the closer the priest comes to people, “there is a challenge” around safety and yet a lot of priest “are unhappy about the idea of wearing masks”.
He said it would be “prudent” for people to wear a mask at Mass, although some will be exempt including those with particular health problems and children. “We’ll follow the public health guidance,” he said.
In relation to baptisms, the bishops’ guidelines require priests to bless the child with touching and to anoint the baby with the holy oils using a cotton bud.