In a pastoral letter to the Catholics of Scotland, bishops across Scotland have announced that the mandatory requirement to be physically present at church on Sundays and holy days of obligation will be reintroduced from 2 January 2022. Lead signatories are Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, President of the Bishops' Conference of Scotland, and Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews and Edinburgh.
Unlike the Bishops of England and Wales, who left the issue open after their recent conference, the Catholic Bishops of Scotland issued a statement on 25 November which was then read out at Masses last weekend, saying “saving any serious worsening of the situation, we believe that Christmastide provides an opportune moment to restore the obligation”. The letter was issued before news that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus had been discovered in southern Africa and had already spread to Europe.
The bishops acknowledged that access to Mass online has been positive and said: “We encourage those unable to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days to continue making use of this” but “of itself, though, online participation does not fulfil the obligation”, noting that “nothing can adequately replace actual presence”. The bishops’ letter states that anyone who is ill, showing symptoms of Covid, having underlying health conditions or those with responsibilities for people needing special care are not obliged to attend and anyone in those groups can continue to participate online. For those attending in person, diocesan websites stress that social distancing, the wearing of masks and hand sanitising will remain in place.
“Let us therefore use the coming Christian season to return, with purified hearts and fresh fervour, to our sacramental and liturgical life,” said the bishops. They felt that Mass “should not be seen as a burden” and that “Sunday Mass can reinvigorate and refresh our Christian faith, our sense of community and our desire to live as missionary disciples in the world”.
While the obligation does not come into effect until the new year, the bishops strongly encouraged Catholics to attend Mass on Christmas Day and on the Sunday Feast of the Holy Family.
The Irish bishops are meeting this week for their Winter plenary meeting and will discuss whether or not to reintroduce the Sunday Mass obligation which was suspended last year in an effort to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
Sources have indicated that it is unlikely to be reintroduced for the remainder of this year in view the threat that has emerged with the Omicron variant. The bishops’ decision will be announced on Wednesday.
The bishops’ current position is that the obligation to attend Mass on holy days, which includes Sundays, remains suspended following their decision in Spring 2020 to protect the faithful from the Coronavirus. The latest government guidance says that “religious services and weddings can proceed without capacity limits but with all other protective measures remaining in place”. As the capacity of churches and numbers attending varies greatly, the onus is on each parish to consider what best suits their congregation. Funerals and other special ceremonies with large congregations, such as marriages, do not permit standing in aisles or doorways, hand-shaking, or the use of condolence books or booklets.
The bishops of England and Wales decided last week to delay a return to Sunday obligation, suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a statement published on Friday 19 November, the Bishops revised an earlier intention of reintroducing the obligation for the beginning of advent, 28 November: “The pandemic is clearly not over. The risk of infection is still present. For some, there is legitimate fear in gathering together. As your bishops, we recognise that these prevailing circumstances suggest that not everyone is yet in the position to fulfil the absolute duty to freely attend Sunday Mass.” The Irish Bishops’ Conference is due to make a decision in the coming week.
The announcement came as it emerged places of worship will be exempt from the reintroduced legal requirement to wear masks, announced by the Prime Minister in advance on Sunday. The mask mandate applies to shops, banks, post offices, hairdressers, and on public transport, unless an individual is exempt.