A cardinal has thanked Catholics for their “patience” after the government permitted churches in England to reopen for private prayer from June 15, more than 80 days after they were forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But public Masses will remain suspended until the government decides they can resume with a minimal risk of spreading of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives in the U.K. as of June 8.
In a statement June 7, Cardinal Vincent Nichols also thanked the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other officials for allowing the Church to take the first step towards the resumption of public Masses, which were suspended in March.
The cardinal said: “This is a first, measured step in restoring the more normal practice of our faith and will be welcomed by so many, who have waited with great patience since March 23 when our churches were closed, by government decision, as part of the fight against this pandemic.”
“I thank everyone for that patience. It is important that every care is taken to ensure that the guidance given for this limited opening is fully observed, not least by those entering our churches.”
“Our preparation is taking place with thoroughness. Visiting a church for individual prayer, benefitting from the sacredness of that space, can be done safely and confidently.”
Nichols, who is president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, continued: “Not every Catholic church will be open on June 15. Local decisions and provision have to lead this process. But it is a great blessing, for individuals and for the benefit of all in society, that church doors will again be open to all who long to pray there for the peace and grace we need today.”
“This first step enables us to learn and prepare for those that will take us to a fuller use of our churches, for the celebration of Mass and other sacraments. We await that time with deep longing but patient understanding that the protection of the health of our society, especially of the most vulnerable, is a proper cause for caution and care.”
The breakthrough came after talks between government officials and religious leaders through a body known as the Places of Worship Taskforce, led by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and Faith Minister Stephen Greenhalgh.
In a statement June 7, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “This move recognizes the spiritual and mental health benefits for people being able to pray in their place of worship, and that for some people this cannot be replicated by praying at home.”
“New guidance will be published shortly to ensure the limited reopening of places of worship can be done safely and in line with social distancing guidelines. This will recommend the thorough cleaning of shared spaces, hand cleansing at entry and exit and asking worshipers to bring their own items such as a prayer mat or religious text instead of sharing or using communal ones.”
It added that “communally led prayer, worship or devotion,” including Mass, would “not be possible at this stage.”
“The government will continue to work with the Taskforce towards the full reopening of places of worship as soon as the scientific advice allows,” it said.
Pleased to announce that from 15 June, places of worship will be able to open for individual prayer. Thank you to all the faith leaders who are working with me to ensure this is done safely.
I know that for millions across the country this news has been long awaited. pic.twitter.com/i6uxrf1Xub
— Robert Jenrick (@RobertJenrick) June 6, 2020
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury joined Nichols in welcoming the government’s decision.
In a June 8 statement, he said: “I am delighted the government has recognized how the priority of prayer and worship are central to the common good and to the re-building of society after the lockdown.”
“Every church stands as an invitation to pray and it was one of the most painful aspects of our national lockdown to see every church door locked and barred as people sought places of prayer and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.”
“The opening of church doors for private prayer will form a first step towards the public celebration of the Mass and the sacraments.”
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the government has permitted churches to host funerals, under strict conditions, and to livestream liturgies, but not to perform baptisms or weddings.
Nichols had put increasing pressure on the government to set a date for reopening churches with a series of public statements.
In a May 14 radio interview he called for “a bit more sensitivity from the government” towards the concerns of Catholics. In his Pentecost Sunday homily May 31, he questioned why car showrooms were being permitted to reopen ahead of churches.
The bishops in turn have come under pressure to reopen churches. A video by lay Catholics appealing for churches to be reopened has been viewed more than 10,000 times since it was posted April 22.
In a May 1 message, the metropolitan archbishops of England and Wales acknowledged the pain of Catholics who cannot receive the sacraments because of the coronavirus lockdown.
In the message, entitled “A People who Hope in Christ”, published May 1, the archbishops said that while livestreamed Masses nourished faith, they were no substitute for public liturgies.
“We are deeply moved by the Eucharistic yearning expressed by so many members of the faithful. We thank you sincerely for your love for the Lord Jesus, present in the sacraments and supremely so in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” they wrote.
“The bishops and priests of every diocese are remembering you and your loved ones at Mass each day in our churches as we pray ‘in hope of health and well-being.’ We thank our priests for this faithfulness to their calling.”
Public Masses resumed June 1 in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel which belongs to the Diocese of Portsmouth. As the island is a self-governing British crown dependency and not part of the U.K., it is able to set its own rules.