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19th November 2021

We’ve been waiting for word from the Bishops’ Conference and our own diocese regarding the Sunday obligation given that “Rome” hinted at the possibility of it being restored as of the First Sunday of Advent.  Unfortunately the statements we received on Friday are somewhat ambiguous and therefore not as helpful as we might have hoped.

The Bishops’ Conference statement is entitled “Honouring Sunday” and, really, that would seem to be exactly what it is recommending – that we continue to honour Sunday as the Lord’s Day but without the Sunday obligation being re-imposed.  And so, for example, it acknowledges the experience of the last year or so, when we have lived our faith through the limitations of the pandemic and it reinforces the teaching of the Catechism that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our spiritual and pastoral life.  But then when it goes on to say: Our Lord Jesus invites us to receive anew the gift of Sunday as the preeminent day, the day of the Resurrection, when they Church gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, it doesn’t then specifically state that that is what we are once again obliged to do. 

What it does say is: We now encourage all Catholics to look again at the patterns which they have formed in recent months with regard to going to Mass on Sundays.  This would include consideration and reflection about what we might do on Sundays, such as sports or shopping, or other leisure and social activities.  To me this seems to be an invitation to ensure that the things we do don’t prevent us from keeping Sunday as a day holy to the Lord, free especially from work that can be done on other days.  What it also says is: When the Church speaks of the Sunday obligation, it reminds us that attending Mass is a personal response to the selfless offering of Christ’s love, but it doesn’t say that we must now start observing the Sunday obligation once again. 

In fact the statement then says: At this time, we recognise that for some people there may be certain factors which hinder attendance at Sunday Mass.  The pandemic is clearly not over.  The risk of infection is still present.  For some, there is legitimate fear in gathering together.  As your bishops, we recognise that these prevailing circumstances suggest that not everyone is yet in the position to fulfil the absolute duty to freely attend Sunday Mass. This review, and the decisions which arise from it, fall to every Catholic and we trust this will be done with honesty Which seems to imply that people shouldn’t use the present situation as a convenient excuse to avoid going to Mass at all or to avoid keeping the Sabbath.  

So what does that mean in practical terms?  Well let me turn to the information received from the diocese which opens with the statement: The Bishop of Middlesbrough recommends that the following precautions are maintained: wearing of face coverings, maintain social distancing, maintain the service of stewards and maintain the standard of sanitisation and cleanliness.  As that is what we are doing at present, then to me it means continue doing what we are doing. 

The statement also says: Designate an area where there will be set places at least one metre apart if space allows.   In specifying “an area” this seems to allow for those larger churches that may be able to safely open up their seating to pre-Covid numbers, but to maintain a socially distanced area for those people who still want to be at least one metre away from others.  In a small church like ours we simply don’t have the luxury of the space to be able to do that.  My principle concern is to keep everybody safe and if that means maintaining the social distancing and restricted numbers we have had in place thus far, then that is what we will continue to do.  I would prefer people to be able to come to Mass because they feel safe, than staying away because they don’t.

The statement goes on:  If numbers prevent social distancing the wearing of face coverings is strongly recommended.  The only reason numbers attending would prevent social distancing is if we were to remove social distancing completely, and while that might be the policy in other public gathering places, and even possibly in larger churches, nothing I have read so far requires us to abandon that safety measure – one which I think remains essential in a church the size of ours.

It then says:  If the Covid R number is high in your area and local restrictions come into place, adhere to local government guidance.  Our area and surrounding areas remain worryingly high and the Covid virus is no respecter of local government boundaries. In any case there is nothing more confusing than chopping and changing policies when consistent practice is more helpful and will hopefully ensure everyone’s well-being.

It then suggests that we leave doors wide open for 15mins before Mass, leaving them ajar during Mass, and advise parishioners to wear warm clothing!  The windows in our church no longer open anyway, and there is no point in running the heating if we are going to leave the doors open.  We seem to have managed safely so far without those measures – given the internal volume of our church (height-wise), that everyone is wearing a face mask, and that we are sitting socially distanced – and so as long as that continues to be the case I would like everyone to be able to celebrate Mass in a pre-warmed church.   

Other priests seem to be of the opinion that it is still too early to introduce radical changes to what we have been doing so far and that our primary concern has to be the wellbeing of our parishioners.   Reading and re-reading those latest guidelines “with honesty” (as the bishops said) suggests to me the need to continue to err on the side of caution if it helps to keep people safe and so that is what I intend to do.  The bishops seemed not to be reintroducing the Sunday obligation (which would necessarily mean abandoning social distancing completely otherwise our churches wouldn’t be able to accommodate people in pre-Covid numbers) and Bishop Drainey’s recommendations appear to support a continuation of current practices, and so we too will continue to do what we have been doing until we are told otherwise or until it is possible to safely do otherwise. 

We’ve been waiting for word from the Bishops’ Conference and our own diocese regarding the Sunday obligation given that “Rome” hinted at the possibility of it being restored as of the First Sunday of Advent.  Unfortunately the statements we received on Friday are somewhat ambiguous and therefore not as helpful as we might have hoped.

The Bishops’ Conference statement is entitled “Honouring Sunday” and, really, that would seem to be exactly what it is recommending – that we continue to honour Sunday as the Lord’s Day but without the Sunday obligation being re-imposed.  And so, for example, it acknowledges the experience of the last year or so, when we have lived our faith through the limitations of the pandemic and it reinforces the teaching of the Catechism that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our spiritual and pastoral life.  But then when it goes on to say: Our Lord Jesus invites us to receive anew the gift of Sunday as the preeminent day, the day of the Resurrection, when they Church gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, it doesn’t then specifically state that that is what we are once again obliged to do. 

What it does say is: We now encourage all Catholics to look again at the patterns which they have formed in recent months with regard to going to Mass on Sundays.  This would include consideration and reflection about what we might do on Sundays, such as sports or shopping, or other leisure and social activities.  To me this seems to be an invitation to ensure that the things we do don’t prevent us from keeping Sunday as a day holy to the Lord, free especially from work that can be done on other days.  What it also says is: When the Church speaks of the Sunday obligation, it reminds us that attending Mass is a personal response to the selfless offering of Christ’s love, but it doesn’t say that we must now start observing the Sunday obligation once again. 

In fact the statement then says: At this time, we recognise that for some people there may be certain factors which hinder attendance at Sunday Mass.  The pandemic is clearly not over.  The risk of infection is still present.  For some, there is legitimate fear in gathering together.  As your bishops, we recognise that these prevailing circumstances suggest that not everyone is yet in the position to fulfil the absolute duty to freely attend Sunday Mass. This review, and the decisions which arise from it, fall to every Catholic and we trust this will be done with honesty Which seems to imply that people shouldn’t use the present situation as a convenient excuse to avoid going to Mass at all or to avoid keeping the Sabbath.  

So what does that mean in practical terms?  Well let me turn to the information received from the diocese which opens with the statement: The Bishop of Middlesbrough recommends that the following precautions are maintained: wearing of face coverings, maintain social distancing, maintain the service of stewards and maintain the standard of sanitisation and cleanliness.  As that is what we are doing at present, then to me it means continue doing what we are doing. 

The statement also says: Designate an area where there will be set places at least one metre apart if space allows.   In specifying “an area” this seems to allow for those larger churches that may be able to safely open up their seating to pre-Covid numbers, but to maintain a socially distanced area for those people who still want to be at least one metre away from others.  In a small church like ours we simply don’t have the luxury of the space to be able to do that.  My principle concern is to keep everybody safe and if that means maintaining the social distancing and restricted numbers we have had in place thus far, then that is what we will continue to do.  I would prefer people to be able to come to Mass because they feel safe, than staying away because they don’t.

The statement goes on:  If numbers prevent social distancing the wearing of face coverings is strongly recommended.  The only reason numbers attending would prevent social distancing is if we were to remove social distancing completely, and while that might be the policy in other public gathering places, and even possibly in larger churches, nothing I have read so far requires us to abandon that safety measure – one which I think remains essential in a church the size of ours.

It then says:  If the Covid R number is high in your area and local restrictions come into place, adhere to local government guidance.  Our area and surrounding areas remain worryingly high and the Covid virus is no respecter of local government boundaries. In any case there is nothing more confusing than chopping and changing policies when consistent practice is more helpful and will hopefully ensure everyone’s well-being.

It then suggests that we leave doors wide open for 15mins before Mass, leaving them ajar during Mass, and advise parishioners to wear warm clothing!  The windows in our church no longer open anyway, and there is no point in running the heating if we are going to leave the doors open.  We seem to have managed safely so far without those measures – given the internal volume of our church (height-wise), that everyone is wearing a face mask, and that we are sitting socially distanced – and so as long as that continues to be the case I would like everyone to be able to celebrate Mass in a pre-warmed church.   

Other priests seem to be of the opinion that it is still too early to introduce radical changes to what we have been doing so far and that our primary concern has to be the wellbeing of our parishioners.   Reading and re-reading those latest guidelines “with honesty” (as the bishops said) suggests to me the need to continue to err on the side of caution if it helps to keep people safe and so that is what I intend to do.  The bishops seemed not to be reintroducing the Sunday obligation (which would necessarily mean abandoning social distancing completely otherwise our churches wouldn’t be able to accommodate people in pre-Covid numbers) and Bishop Drainey’s recommendations appear to support a continuation of current practices, and so we too will continue to do what we have been doing until we are told otherwise or until it is possible to safely do otherwise.