Catholic churches in Aotearoa New Zealand were able to open their doors from Thursday, May 14, for individuals to pray in private, but public Masses are not possible under the new restricted Alert Level 2.
This was the message sent by the country’s six Catholic bishops in a letter to parishioners, priests and parish leadership on May 12.
The new Level 2 rules the New Zealand Government announced the previous day restricted religious gatherings to a maximum of 10 people, compared with a proposed limit of 100 stated in the Government’s first level 2 announcement the previous week. Masses and other religious services would have been possible with the limit of 100, a statement from the NZCBC noted.
All celebrations of Mass in this country were suspended on March 20 and churches were closed five days later as New Zealand was locked down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The bishops met on the morning of May 12 via Zoom video conference and concluded that the limit of 10 people was too restrictive to allow even a limited resumption of weekday Mass, and certainly not any Sunday services.
“Like yourselves, we too are disappointed that we are not yet allowed to assemble in our churches in groups larger than 10 people,” the bishops’ letter stated.
The letter noted that the Government will reconsider the limit of 10 people at religious services in two weeks from May 11. It added that the Catholic bishops have, on May 12, joined with the Anglican Church in asking the Government to look again with urgency at increasing that number.
The bishops said the limit of 10 would allow churches to reopen from Thursday, May 14, for individuals to visit for such activities as private prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. All official health and safety requirements must be met for this.
The letter from the bishops noted that “we are not advocating Eucharistic Adoration at this time”.
Not all churches would be ready to open their doors on May 14 for these limited activities, but that will be up to individual parishes, the letter added. The popular online streaming of many Masses is likely to continue for some time.
The bishops’ letter concluded: “While these have been difficult weeks for all, we know that in some surprising ways they have also been graced days for many. We have been encouraged and inspired by the number of people who have taken the opportunity during this lockdown time to deepen their spiritual life and re-evaluate their daily lives as individuals and families.”
Many Catholics and members of other denominations took to social media to express strong disappointment in the Government’s decision to backtrack from the proposed limit of 100 at gatherings to a mere 10. Many commenters pointed to the fact that 100 people could be in a cinema or restaurant in the new level 2, but could not be in a church for a service with the same numbers.
But the Prime Minister defended the across-the-board limit of 10 for such gatherings, which also applies to events like funerals and tangihanga, on the grounds of public safety, given the likelihood of close fraternisation of those present. She also applied this reasoning to church services, saying that she had received advice that these involved close fellowship among those present.