Cathedral parishes in New Zealand’s dioceses opened their doors to varying degrees during the first days of Covid-2 alert level.
People entering cathedrals – and other Catholic church buildings that opened for private prayer – were made aware of requirements for hand washing and sanitising, recording attendance for tracking and tracing purposes and of the need for physical distancing. Typically, no more than 10 people at a time were allowed into a building.
Information was also given about cathedrals and other churches being thoroughly sanitised each day.
The Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hamilton opened its doors from 9am to 5pm from May 14, the first day of alert level 2. As well as following the requirements outlined above, people were required to use pews within a cordoned off area. Reconciliation was available for 2 hours on Saturday mornings.
In Palmerston North, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit opened for two hours each day from Sunday, May 17. People were able to visit the cathedral under the restrictions outlined above between 12pm and 1pm and between 4.30pm and 5.30pm each day.
St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Christchurch was open for prayer and Reconciliation each day from Monday, May 18 between 11am and 12.30pm and between 4pm and 5pm, with the restrictions outlined above.
In a message posted on facebook on May 14, it was announced that St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin would be open every day from 9am to 5pm, under similar restrictions to those above. Reconciliation was available on Saturdays between 4.30pm and 5.30pm, with this taking place in the sanctuary to meet social distancing requirements.
In Auckland, St Patrick’s Cathedral was open for Reconciliation only on weekdays between 5pm and 6pm, starting on May 18. Similar restrictions to those above applied. People were asked to sign in at the entrance to the cathedral with one of the priests.
The parish leadership of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Wellington decided that, under the circumstances, the cathedral complex could not reopen in the initial conditions for alert level 2. It was hoped that future conditions in alert level 1 might see an absence of restrictions. The cathedral itself was closed in 2018 because of seismic risk.
Many other parish churches throughout New Zealand also opened their doors for various time periods.
Public Masses resume with restrictions
Public Masses have been allowed to resume as of May 29 in New Zealand, with a limit of 100 people present, but each parish’s leadership will decide if its own Masses are held on Sundays and/or weekdays or not at all under the current conditions.
On May 25, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that limits on numbers present at public gatherings – such as religious services – could rise from 10 to 100 under Covid-19 alert level 2. This would start from noon on May 29.
In a May 25 statement, New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference secretary Bishop Stephen Lowe said that “each parish will decide what is manageable and safe for their community, including whether any particular weekday or Sunday Mass resumes”.
Bishop Lowe acknowledged that “not all parishioners will be able to attend Mass because of the restrictions of numbers”.
“Others will not attend due to health reasons, concerns or fears. For these reasons, the dispensation [from] attendance at Sunday Mass continues.”
He added that live-streamed Masses will continue to be offered for these people.
The bishop noted that the guidelines for the reception of Holy Communion and health practices during the pandemic will remain in place. These include distributing Holy Communion only in the hand, not on the tongue, and not from the chalice.
On May 26, the New Zealand bishops issued a pastoral letter “on leaving the closed room”, referring to the closed room in which the apostles and others, including Our Lady, prayed between the Ascension and Pentecost. (The text of the letter is to the right).
The bishops wrote of rejoicing in taking steps returning towards some semblance of normality, and of joy at being able to celebrate the Eucharist together again.
But the various restrictions for the good of the vulnerable and elderly were acknowledged, as was the likelihood that some churches will not open immediately.
“We ask you to be patient and understanding while your parish leadership determine what will happen in your parish,” the bishops wrote.
Government advice for such gatherings is to maintain hygiene standards and meet existing record-keeping requirements for contact tracing.
The May 26 letter came after two weeks of communicating with authorities and public comment by the bishops after the Government backtracked on an initial alert level 2 limit of 100 for gatherings – indicated by the Prime Minister on May 7 – to a maximum of 10 announced five days later. This was on the grounds that close fellowship among churchgoers would be a greater risk of spreading the virus than the same number of people in a cinema or restaurant assembling in groups of 10, but without intermingling.
The 338 Catholic churches in New Zealand were permitted to open their doors for private prayer under certain conditions from May 14.
With the Anglican bishops, the New Zealand Catholic bishops wrote to the Prime Minister and this resulted in a Zoom conference between her, Cardinal John Dew, Bishop Patrick Dunn, the director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and leaders of other faiths on May 13. The Prime Minister stressed the need to wait a little longer as the country was still at a very vulnerable stage.
Within a few days it emerged that the New Zealand Police had issued guidelines to officers indicating religious services could proceed with larger numbers, provided people sit in groups of 10, with each group two metres apart from others and a register being kept of those attending. The Police guidance stated that such an event was not technically a “gathering”. But the Ministry of Health reiterated that no more than 10 people could attend public gatherings, including church services.
The Catholic bishops wrote a strongly worded letter to the Prime Minister on May 22, urging that the Cabinet raise the limit of numbers allowed at religious services to at least 100. It had been signalled that an announcement would come on May 25, after Cabinet met. But there had been some hints that the limit would be raised to 50 only.