“Spiritual pain” grows as churches close in parts of Canada, numbers reduced in Saskatchewan

While churches have closed in some parts of the country, they remain open in Saskatchewan -- but with numbers reduced Nov. 27 to a maximum of 30 persons. (Catholic Saskatoon News file photo by Kiply Lukan Yaworski)

By Catholic Register staff with files from The B.C. Catholic and Saskatoon Catholic News

[Canadian Catholic News] – The second wave of COVID-19 has hit many Canadian Catholics where it hurts most — the shutting down of public Masses.

Churches in and around Canada’s most populous city, Toronto, as well as those in British Columbia and Manitoba, have all been closed for public Mass in the wake of provincial directives to battle the deadly and stubborn coronavirus that is also forcing further restrictions on public gatherings in the rest of Canada.

In Saskatchewan, numbers permitted to attend worship celebrations were reduced to 30 as of Friday, Nov. 27, no matter what the size of the building. The health authority and the provincial government have announced the rules will be in place until Dec. 17. The situation past that date is uncertain, as case numbers continue to rise in Saskatchewan.

“We continue to react to the changing conditions of the pandemic and the directives that come forward,” said Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon during live-streamed celebration of Mass on the First Sunday of Advent. Updated directives for celebrating liturgy in the diocese of Saskatoon were released Nov. 26, reflecting the requirement to reduce numbers from the previously-allowed 150 with appropriate distancing to a new maximum of 30.

The general dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass continues in the diocese of Saskatoon. Parishes are now restricting attendance at worship services to 30 persons. Live-streaming video of Mass celebrated by a number of priests in the diocese of Saskatoon are posted at saskatoonmass.com. (On Christmas Eve, Mass with Bishop Mark Hagemoen will be live-streamed on saskatoonmass.com at 4:30 p.m. and at Midnight.)

In the Archdiocese of Toronto, public Masses in Toronto and Peel Region were cancelled effective Nov. 23 after the Ontario government limited attendance in churches in the “lockdown” zone to 10 people. That number includes priests and support staff, which led to the directive from the archdiocese to cancel the Masses.

“I am deeply disappointed that, in some regions of the archdiocese, we must restrict participation in the sacraments,” Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, said in a statement. “This will inflict a great spiritual pain upon those who safely and with great dedication have been drawing spiritual strength to sustain them, and to help them to serve those suffering in this pandemic. As we have demonstrated our ability to safely worship together, I trust that we will soon be able fully to resume public worship.”

The rules stay in place for 28 days, though they can be reviewed before then.

In Vancouver, Archbishop J. Michael Miller said he was caught off guard by the B.C. government’s announcement on Nov. 19 that public worship in the province was banned until Dec. 7, particularly after he and other faith leaders spoke with government officials a day earlier.

“I was prepared there were going to be further restrictions,” Archbishop Miller told archdiocesan senior director of communications Makani Marquis.

What the archbishop didn’t anticipate was churches being closed to services for two weeks while everything from restaurants and bars to cinemas and dance classes would remain open.

“It’s just puzzling that … no evidence was offered at the press conference about why religious gatherings were in some ways singled out. That is a little disturbing.”

Parishes have been “scrupulous” about following health protocols by sanitizing, limiting worshippers and marking off physically-distanced pews, he said. “We have an exemplary record, and it’s disappointing that that wasn’t acknowledged.”

Churches in B.C. had a 50-person limit for Masses previously. In Manitoba, churches have been closed since Nov. 12

The new measures in Ontario overtake an initiative by the Archdiocese of Toronto on Nov. 17, when it instructed its pastors in Toronto, Peel and York regions to limit the number in churches to a maximum of 50 beginning Nov. 24. That was to replace the previous rule of 30-per-cent capacity in churches. Under the new rules, York Region churches will continue under the 30-per-cent rule.

Collins encouraged pastors to keep churches open whenever possible for private prayer and for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Weddings, funerals and baptisms will be restricted to 10 persons.

The cardinal also urged parishioners to view livestreamed and televised Masses. He will continue to celebrate a livestreamed Mass each morning at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica.

In his statement, Collins also praised first responders and frontline workers in the pandemic fight, and the “heroic” work that has been done to keep churches safe, noting that more than 1.3 million people have attended Mass in the archdiocese since churches re-opened in June following a three-month closure.

In B.C., the new restrictions come just as The B.C. Catholic released a study of the pandemic’s effects on sacraments and parish finances. The archbishop’s office has estimated an average of 17,700 people a week were attending Mass at local parishes on weekends in October, which is a nearly 80-per-cent drop from the number of Catholics at Sunday Masses at the same time last year.Sunday offerings are also down, with forecasts of a 20- to 25-per-cent decrease in weekly giving by the end of the year.