AS CHURCHES around the country look ahead to resuming public services from 4 July, places of worship across the Continent are now open again, subject to safety measures.
In Italy, where shops and restaurants reopened on 10 May, public liturgies were allowed from Monday, after bitter exchanges between the country’s Roman Catholic bishops and Giuseppe Conte’s government; holy communion is now being administered by priests wearing face-masks and latex gloves.
Army units were called in last week to help sanitise churches in Rome, where Pope Francis celebrated mass for a small congregation on Monday at the tomb of St John Paul II in St Peter’s, to mark the saint’s 100th birthday.
Although the 83-year-old Pope wore no protection, Vatican staff cleaned and disinfected basilicas in Rome in preparation for Monday’s relaxation, and used thermo-scanners to check everyone entering St Peter’s.
In Spain, shortened public masses have been allowed since 11 May, under a decree from the Socialist-led government of Pedro Sánchez, although these must fill no more than one third of church seats, with no choirs, hymn books, or holy water.
PAA volunteers sanitises the church known as “La Crocetta”, in Turin, on Monday, when churches in Italy reopened
The Archbishop of Valencia, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, has rejected “false claims” by local authorities that he breached safety guidelines during a basilica mass on Monday of last week. He accused Socialist politicians of anti-Catholic “manipulation and distortion”.
Churches also reopened in mid-May by arrangement with the 15 state administrations in Germany (News, 8 May), although the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has threatened an “emergency brake” if the country’s death rate, which is still relatively low, begins to rise again.
Several senior prelates have rejected an appeal, signed by the German former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, and more than 50,000 people worldwide, in early May, which accused “certain forces” of using the pandemic to curb religious rights and to impose a new world order.
In Austria, public services resumed last Friday, with a rule of one masked churchgoer for every 10 square metres, and including small-scale weddings, baptisms, and funerals; in the neighbouring Czech Republic, liturgies can be attended by 30 people, and all restrictions are to be lifted on 8 June.
In Poland, where churches stayed open throughout the pandemic for small symbolic congregations, a presidential election on Monday of last week was called off, along with celebrations of St John Paul II’s centenary, although this was still marked on Sunday and Monday by parish events nationwide.
In a message last week, the president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, urged Roman Catholics to make full use of restored pastoral services by attending church on weekdays as well as Sundays.
Here and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where traditional practices predominate, church leaders have had to reassure Catholics that they will not profane the sacrament by receiving it in the hand, referring to the Pope’s most recent instruction at a general audience in Rome on March 2018.
State restrictions on churches are being widely resisted by priests and bishops in Russia and other predominantly Orthodox countries.
In Montenegro, protests erupted when a Serbian Orthodox bishop and seven clergy were detained for 72 hours after a pilgrimage at Niksic, prompting complaints of persecution from the Belgrade Patriarchate.
At Mount Athos, in Greece, 20 Orthodox monasteries issued a statement last week, as the Athens government eased church restrictions, insisting that the pandemic should “in no way be linked to the ability of believers to participate in the Holy Mysteries”.
PASigns providing instructions for distancing are placed inside churches in Milan for the restart of masses from Monday
Some Christians have complained of mixed health-and-safety messages, such as in the Netherlands, where the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, announced a phased easing of the coronavirus lockdown on 6 May, but issued no guidelines for places of worship.
Meanwhile, in France, where churches were ordered to bar “large congregations” but allow private prayer and internet transmissions, President Macron’s government allowed schools and shops to reopen in early May, but provoked angry reactions by instructing churches to stay closed until at least 2 June.
After a petition signed by dozens of French parliamentarians, the Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, has indicated that some services might resume by Pentecost, on 31 May, although stricter curbs will continue in Paris and other “red zones”.
The southern Marian shrine of Lourdes reopened its gates to pilgrims from the area last Saturday, after closing for the first time in its 164-year history. Other European sanctuaries are to readmit visitors soon.
In the Irish Republic, however, churches will not reopen for services until 20 July, and, even then, for restricted congregations only, and the clergy will need masks and gloves.
In a statement on 6 May, the Brussels-based commission representing the EU’s Roman Catholic bishops, COMECE, warned that religious freedom could be “at stake in the context of fighting against Covid-19”, and urged “consultation and co-ordination” between Churches and governments.
It regretted that a roadmap for lifting virus-containment measures, published in April by the European Commission, made no mention of religious services. The Bishops’ commission quoted a recent call by the Council of Europe for any future restrictionto be “clearly established by law, in compliance with relevant constitutional guarantees and proportionate to the aim it pursues”.