An Argentine archbishop has proposed 13 measures that would aim to allow churches to reopen churches during the coronavirus pandemic while reducing the risk of contagion.

The proposal is an effort to balance safety and the need for Catholics to receive the Eucharist, Archbishop Víctor Fernández of La Plata said this week.

In response to the pandemic, Argentina has been under lockdown since March 20. According to John Hopkins University, there are 3,031 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 145 deaths in the country.

Fernández said that although the Church is providing material sustenance to those hardest hit by the pandemic “when we think about sustaining the interior life of the faithful and encouraging its growth, we find ourselves in the serious difficulty of seeing them deprived of the Eucharist for a long time, and we can also foresee that this situation could last for several months.”

In a letter dated April 19 and addressed to the conference’s executive committee, the bishop said the Second Vatican Council teaches that “no Christian community is built up if it is not rooted and centered on the celebration of the Holy Eucharist,” and that Saint John Paul II emphasized that the Mass “rather than an obligation, should be felt as a requisite deeply inscribed in Christian existence.”

Fernández said the letter he sent puts together the suggestions of several bishops and that it is understandable “that many of the faithful are calling on us to find some way to make the Eucharist accessible again.”

“We tell them that they can experience other forms of prayer, and they do, but as Saint John Chrysostom has said “’You can also pray in your home, however, you cannot pray the same way you do in church where the brethren are gathered together.’”

Fernández noted that Pope Francis “teaches that God ‘in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter.’ It’s good that our faithful have learned that and so it’s not the same thing for them,” he said, adding that Catholics are eager “the food of the love that is the source of supernatural life.”

“It won’t be easy to prove that this situation is lasting too long, nor can we simply wait till the pandemic is completely over,” the prelate noted.

“We know that exposing yourself to infection is irresponsible especially because it involves exposing others to infection and indirectly could lead to a public health crisis that we don’t want to see in our country,” he said.

Aiming to send “a clear message to our People of God to show that we’re truly concerned and that we intend to take some steps that would allow us to resolve this situation as soon as possible,” without neglecting “the health concerns of the authorities” Fernández proposed a series of obligatory measures to celebrate the Eucharist publicly:

  1. Keep a distance of two meters between people to the side, front and back. This will require removing or closing off half the pews in the church.
  2. No more than two people per pew.
  3. Once the pews are occupied in that manner, no more people are to be allowed to enter the church.
  4. In the churches where there is usually a lot of people in attendance, the number of Masses should be increased so the faithful can spread themselves out over Saturday and Sunday at different times. Given the prevalence and closeness of churches this will not involve using transportation.
  5. Mass should not be celebrated publicly at the most frequently visited shrines due to the difficulty of establishing appropriate controls.
  6. There should be no line for communion, instead the Eucharistic ministers should go to the people positioned at the ends of the pews and place the Eucharist in the hand.
  7. Every Eucharistic minister should wash his hands with soap before and after and apply alcohol gel.
  8. The sign of peace and any physical contact should be omitted.
  9. Mass should last no more than 40 minutes.
  10. People should leave the church progressively, not all at once, and avoid greeting each other.
  11. No intentions should be taken at Mass time, only those previously received by phone, mail or messages.
  12. Those people who because of their age are prevented from attending may receive Communion at home.
  13. The dispensation from the Sunday obligation should be temporarily maintained so that people who prefer to exercise extreme caution don’t feel obliged to attend.

The archbishop also pointed out in his letter that “if the economic impact has to be foreseen, it’s also appropriate to place a value on those things that provide consolation and strength to people during hard times.”

A version of this story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.