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Catholic Church lays out rules for return of public Mass in Northern Ireland

Priests will be asked to distribute communion from behind glass screens or wear visors as part of plans to resume public celebrations of Mass.

New details have emerged of the steps being considered by the Catholic Church to get services back on track safely in the coming weeks.

Among the options for holy communion would be a glass screen with an opening at hand level at all distribution points or priests having to wear a transparent visor when administering communion to people in their seats.

The details of a new draft plan, being discussed by the Church hierarchy and revealed by The Irish Catholic newspaper, will also see vulnerable and older parishioners being asked to stay home rather than attend Mass.

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They will be advised to continue participating on webcam or on radio for the moment and, if they wish, arrange for a family member to bring them communion, while observing the required sanitising of hands.

Priests will also have to work with their own parish councils to calculate how many people their churches can safely hold and clearly display this figure.

They would devise a parish programme to allow people to come from particular townlands or housing estates to a designated Mass on a particular day, so that everyone can come at least once every few weeks on Sunday.


Fr Paddy McCafferty hearing confessions while observing social distancing

Fr Paddy McCafferty hearing confessions while observing social distancing

Fr Paddy McCafferty hearing confessions while observing social distancing

In the past week, many churches in Northern Ireland have begun reopening for individual visits and private prayer as lockdown restrictions were eased.

Earlier this month, west Belfast priest Fr Paddy McCafferty resumed hearing confessions while observing social distancing through the locked gates of his church, Corpus Christi parish in Ballymurphy.

He believes people should be allowed back to Mass "as soon as possible".

Fr McCafferty said: "While it has been good to get this far it will be important to have people coming back in for Mass again.

"This has been an unprecedented time when faithful Catholics have been unable to receive the Eucharist for months.

"While many churches have been availing of streaming services via webcams and social media over recent weeks, it's not the same as being present for Mass.

"I have a lot of anxious parents whose children haven't yet been baptised so as soon as it is safe we should be doing that."

Fr McCafferty added: "Clergy will adapt to the current danger and make things as safe as possible. Older people may be disappointed at not being able to return immediately but we have to consider their safety."

The draft plan also envisages confirmation ceremonies taking place in mid-September but advises that such celebrations would be conducted by the parish priest and may have to take place in small groups over successive days.

The plan aims to ensure that all preparations are made so that churches are ready to move once the civil authorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic give approval.

Government sources in Dublin have hinted that phase four of its roadmap - when public Masses are due to begin from July 20 - could be brought forward to the end of June if the virus continues to be successfully managed.

The 88-point programme, which is expected to be boiled down to key issues in the coming days, also bans choirs and congregational singing when churches re-open.

It suggested that dioceses prepare short videos similar to aircraft safety demonstrations to assist parishioners in correct behaviour when returning to Mass.

The document says: "It is clear that re-opening the pastoral life of the Church will be far more challenging institutionally than anything we have been through in the past few months. Our biggest challenge may be lack of motivation to do all that is required on the part of some, and unbridled enthusiasm to do everything on the part of others.

"It needs to be clearly understood, however, that churches will only be able to re-open for public liturgy when the proper procedures have been put in place."

Earlier this week, Archbishop Eamon Martin said it was "sad and disappointing" that the Covid-19 restrictions have lasted throughout the Easter season and congregations are still unable to gather physically.

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