Pandemic has been ‘spiritually painful,’ archbishop says, as churches reopen gradually

Toronto’s archbishop says the past three months have been “spiritually painful” for Catholics because churches have been closed during the pandemic but they are reopening gradually “in a careful way” with safety measures in place.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, in a virtual news conference on Sunday, says the Archdiocese of Toronto has prepared a gradual reopening plan that balances the need for Catholics to come together to worship with the need for health and safety amid COVID-19. Medical experts have reviewed the phased reopening plan, which has been shared with the province, he said.

“First of all, I would like to thank the faithful of the archdiocese for their patience during these challenging days. I am grateful to Catholics throughout the archdiocese for their understanding as we have worked together to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 over the past several months,” Collins said.

“I also am keenly aware that closing our more than 200 Catholic churches in this Archdiocese of Toronto has been a very spiritually painful and difficult period for all of us.”

Collins said he is delighted that the 225 Catholic churches can reopen in Toronto. “I am just overjoyed that we will once more be able to open our churches. This is such an important reality. Understandably, this will be done in a very careful way,” he said.

“We have an extremely thorough, very well-thought plan for doing this. But we are ready.”

Province permitted places of worship to open Friday

According to the provincial government, as of last Friday at 12:01 a.m., all places of worship in Ontario were permitted to open with physical distancing in place and attendance limited to no more than 30 per cent of the building capacity to ensure the safety of worshippers.

But under the reopening plan with a timeline drawn up by the archdiocese, Catholic churches in the city may open their doors only for private prayer and adoration starting this Sunday to Tuesday, June 16.

Churches may begin offering daily public mass from Wednesday, June 17 to Saturday, June 20 this week. And on the weekend of June 20 and 21, the parishes may once again offer weekend masses.

According to the provincial government, as of last Friday at 12:01 a.m., all places of worship in Ontario were permitted to open with physical distancing in place and attendance limited to no more than 30 per cent of the building capacity to ensure the safety of worshippers. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

Collins said as churches reopen, there will be several safety measures to consider. Parishioners will be asked to check temperatures before coming to church. If anyone has a fever or any symptoms of COVID-19, he or she will be asked to stay at home. Priests and deacons will also take their temperatures before arriving at church.

“Before opening the church, the pastor must be satisfied that he can do this safely following our return to church protocols,” Collins said.

As for the safety measures, Collins said: “We recognize that they may be awkward, a little uncomfortable and contrary to our culture of hospitality and community.”

Physical distancing important in church itself

When people are at church, they will asked to maintain physical distancing in the parking lot, church entrance and church itself. Pews and aisles may have signs to remind people to distance physically.

People who live together will be allowed to sit together, but distance must be maintained from other people.

Some churches may be using one entrance only. All churches will have hand sanitizing stations, which parishioners are urged to use.

Pews will not have prayer books. Holy water founts will be empty.

There will be no hymnals or prayer books in pews when churches reopen initially. (Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC)

Face masks are highly recommended. Priests will not be required to wear masks at the altar but may do so when distributing communion. As for communion, parishioners will receive it on the hand only, not the tongue.

There will be no “congregational singing” during mass or “offertory procession” or collection. People can leave donations in a designated basket when entering or leaving the church.

“We ask the people: Do not hold hands or shake hands during any portion of the celebration of the Eucharist. At the sign of peace, a nod or a bow to others is quite appropriate,” Collins said.

Parishioners are asked to leave right after mass, not to gather in the vestibule. The church will be cleaned in between services. The faithful are also urged to keep track of their visits in case there is a need for contact tracing, he said.

Livestream of mass to continue for those unable to attend

“It has meant that we have been really deprived of the Holy Eucharist, which is a terrible suffering,” Collins said in response to a question.

Father Mark Goring, pastor at St. Mary’s Parish Catholic Church in Ottawa, celebrates the Eucharist in front of an iPhone broadcasting the Easter Sunday mass live on YouTube, on Sunday, April 12, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Collins said he will continue to provide dispensation from Sunday Mass for people unable to attend for health reasons or because the church has reached its 30 per cent capacity limit.

He urged parishioners to continue praying for front-line health workers, for the sick, for people caring for them and for those who have died of COVID-19.

St. Michael’s Cathedral in downtown Toronto will continue to livestream Sunday masses for people unable to attend in person.


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