Faith communities across Canada are answering a call to make sacrifices to their faith practices in the national battle to control the spread of the COVID-19.
Most religious communities across the country are accepting recommendations from health officials to limit the size of gatherings by cancelling Masses and closing mosques and synagogues.
As several dioceses across Canada announced the cancellation of weekend Masses and other parish activities, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a statement calling on Catholics to heed public health directives.
Those directives from provincial health authorities changed frequently during a chaotic week, but in essence they confirmed a health crisis and advised against public gatherings.
“If those (health authorities) indicate that we shouldn’t be gathered for the sake of the greater and the common good, then we would necessarily make those decisions for the sake of those who are suffering and who have died,” Calgary Bishop William McGrattan told The Catholic Register prior to cancelling all Masses in the diocese until at least Palm Sunday on April 5.
As the country moved towards an unprecedented shutdown of schools, work places, restaurants, retail shops and other public spaces, the most dire restrictions on worship in Canada came in Quebec. There, bishops asked families to reschedule funerals, weddings and baptisms and suspended all parish gatherings, including weekday and Sunday Masses.
“Given the extent of the danger, the urgency of the situation and the solidarity required under such circumstances, the executive of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec is recommending, effective today, the suspension of all celebrations and public activities in the churches of Quebec,” said a statement from Saint-Hyacinthe Bishop Christian Rodembourg.
Quebec was first but it was expected that similar precautions would be enacted in most dioceses across the country.
In Edmonton, Archbishop Richard Smith, who went briefly into self-isolation before testing negative for COVID-19, cancelled all weekday and weekend Masses.
“Let us accept this as our civic duty at this time, and offer this moment in sacrifice to God for the sake of all who are ill from the COVID-19 virus,” he said.
In Ontario — where a state of emergency has been declared and where the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded — Masses on the weekend of March 14-15 were cancelled in the dioceses of Toronto, Ottawa, London and Peterborough after the chief medical officer strongly recommended cancelling all gatherings of 250 or more. Three days later, the number was lowered to 50, effectively cancelling upcoming Sunday Masses in most parishes across the province.
“Our primary concern is the spiritual and physical health and welfare of the faithful and all those who serve at our parishes, recognizing that we have a duty to care for the community at large and the most vulnerable among us,” said a statement from Cardinal Thomas Collins.
He said as the situation continues to be monitored, “churches should remain open for private prayer and Eucharistic Adoration.”
Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said it was the Church’s “civic duty” to follow the directives of public health authorities. But Church leaders must not abandon people in a time of crisis, Prendergast said.
“During this time, when there is understandable anxiety among so many, the Church has an important role to play through our outreach ministries. Particular care should be taken to ensure that the vulnerable are not alone,” he said.
Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver called for “creativity and compassion” from pastors and parish staff in dealing with the health crisis. After the B.C. government imposed a 50-person limit on public gatherings, the archdiocese announced it would attempt to maintain weekend Masses but the 50-person limit “must be observed.”
“Parishes should explore opportunities to creatively connect with vulnerable parishioners — perhaps this is through phone calls and/or visits where appropriate,” Miller said.
“It would be an act of charity to check with elderly or shut-in neighbours to see if they require assistance as they are at risk of social isolation or increased vulnerability if they must leave home to shop for essentials.”
In Halifax, Archbishop Anthony Mancini suspended all weekday and weekend Masses, as well as all liturgical gatherings, but asked that churches remain open for private prayer and adoration. The smaller Diocese of Antigonish enacted precautions but, as of March 17, was not cancelling Masses.
“Let all of us pray for those affected with the virus, for those who are feeling distress as a result of it, and for health care workers who devote themselves generously to serving those in need,” Mancini said.
All four dioceses in New Brunswick and the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Nfld., cancelled weekend Masses until further notice.