A Catholic priest walks to the altar for Mass at St. Joseph's Church in India's Hyderabad city on June 8 as places of religious worship, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls were allowed to operate again after more than two months of Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP)
Cardinal Oswald Gracias has asked fellow Indian bishops not to hurry to have public Masses in churches as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through the country. India's federal government has allowed the reopening of religious places from June 8 in an easing of its Covid-19 lockdown. Cardinal Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, in a June 7 communication asked bishops to resist the pressure to open churches until "a satisfactory protocol is in place." He said it was the "right of the faithful to have pastoral care … our responsibility is to protect the faithful from the danger of infection that could prove to be fatal." The cardinal's warning comes as India continues to report close to 10,000 cases daily. It had reported a total of 256,000 cases as of June 8, some 50,000 of them in the past five days.
Most cases have been reported from New Delhi, Mumbai and Gujarat state in western India. Several Indian states "have extended lockdowns, and in these states our churches are not being opened. I would urge all my brother bishops, notwithstanding pressure from different groups, not to be in a hurry to start Eucharistic sacrifices in our churches until you have a satisfactory protocol in place," Cardinal Gracias' circular said. Government guidelines banned the distribution of prasad, or food offered to gods, in religious places, casting doubt on distributing communion, which is also considered a form of prasad in India. Cardinal Gracias said that since there is no clarity on the distribution of communion, he suggested distributing communion at the end of Mass in a separate room outside the church. He said it could be distributed in the hands of the faithful, complying with the norms of social distancing. If a priest accidentally touches the hands of the faithful, he will have to immediately stop and sanitize his hands before resuming distribution of communion, the cardinal said. Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Kerala-based Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, has also appealed to his bishops to strictly comply with social distancing and other government protocols before resuming public Masses. Cardinal Alencherry, also president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, left the decision on resuming public Masses to bishops as they need to consider local situations. Reopening of churches will be done in phases, said Father Varghese Vallikkatt, spokesperson of the bishops' council, which brings together bishops of all three rites in the state — Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin. "It is a fact that we cannot continue so long with the lockdown. We need to prepare ourselves to lead a normal life maintaining social distancing and other self-precaution as the global pandemic is going to stay with us for quite some time," he said. However, in places such as Bhopal Archdiocese in the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, churches are being sanitized to reopen to the public from June 9. Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal told UCA News that had instructed the "priests and the faithful to follow government guidelines strictly to ensure that the church should not become a place for infection." The situations of all states are not the same, said Father Vinod Kanat, parish priest of Junagadh parish in Gujarat, one of the worst-affected states on the western Indian coast. "I am not opening the church for the public until the situation becomes normal," he told UCA News. "When doubt about the distribution of communion exists, it is better to continue with online Masses." The priest, however, offers Mass for his people, pasting the names of each member of his parish in the pews. "I have pasted their names in the pews. It gives me a feeling that they are personally present in the church. With that feeling, the Mass is offered," Father Kanat told UCA News on June 7.
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