Church closures felt like “the Babylonian exile”
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has announced that a further easing of restrictions in NSW will allow every parish to welcome greater numbers of worshippers in his seventh pastoral letter in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beginning on 1 July, limits on the numbers of people allowed in churches will be determined by the ‘one person per 4 square metre’ rule, meaning that several in the Archdiocese of Sydney could accommodate around 100 people indoors and St Mary’s Cathedral up to 600.
“These past few months we have felt like the Jews in the Babylonian exile, unable to visit the Temple in Zion,” the archbishop wrote in the 2 July letter.
“It is with great joy, as we return to liturgical ‘Ordinary Time’, that our lives are also slowly reverting to their more ‘ordinary’ state. With the easing of COVIDSafe restrictions from 1 July, we can return to church in significant numbers, like the children of Israel returning to the Temple in Zion.”
“It is with great joy, as we return to liturgical ‘Ordinary Time’, that our lives are also slowly reverting to their more ‘ordinary’ state”
The archbishop reiterated social distancing guidelines and other precautions for churches such as the suspension of congregational singing and the need to register online or leave contact details at the door when visiting for Masses, private prayer or other events.
He urged parishes to consider celebrating multiple Masses or using larger spaces such as school or town halls to allow as many people as possible to join in worship on Sundays, while planning could resume for other sacraments including confirmations and weddings that had been put on hold.
While the availability to Catholics of livestreamed Sunday Masses “had its upsides, we knew it was second best”, wrote the archbishop.
“The hunger we’ve experienced should make us appreciate the Eucharist all the more, as we realise better than ever how important it is to gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ and receive Him together.”
He paid tribute to the “inspiring” creativity and collaboration of clergy and laity in response to the pandemic to provide an “explosion” of online Catholic content, from live-streamed Masses to virtual parish meetings and prayer groups.
It had demonstrated that despite all obstacles, the clergy and faithful are “deeply committed to ensuring that the Gospel is proclaimed and worship offered to God”, he wrote.
Last month the archdiocese successfully led a push to petition NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to treat places of worship on par with other gathering places as pandemic restrictions began to be wound back.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP’s dispensation from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass still applies to Catholics except for priests, but those who are at low risk of infection and able to do so are exhorted to “take all reasonable steps” to attend Sunday Mass.
He urged those who cannot attend Mass due to illness, high risk or other precautions to keep Sunday holy with activities such as prayer at home, scripture reading or watching Mass on television or online, asking God for the graces they would normally receive in Holy Communion (‘spiritual communion’).
“They might attend Mass on a weekday where possible,” he added, while churches should as much as possible and following guidelines be kept open for prayer throughout the week.
When announcing what is the largest easing of restrictions in NSW since the pandemic began, Premier Berejiklian said the community had “worked incredibly hard over the past few months” to prevent the disease taking hold and urged people to not let their guard down.