Catholics attend Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral Church in Seoul last April after public Masses resumed following suspension due to Covid-19. (Photo: Catholic Times of Korea)
Catholic parishes across South Korea have issued new rules for safety and physical distancing as the government gradually eases Covid-19 restrictions.
The new rules set out by three archdioceses, 14 dioceses and one military ordinariate were being implemented as the government announced the relaxing of restrictions on Feb. 15.
Gwangju Archdiocese in the southwest announced a limit of 30 percent of capacity for attending Mass in all churches and institutions. Singing of hymns is forbidden.
Meetings after Mass including pastoral council gatherings, meals and exchanges remain prohibited. The Way of the Cross on Fridays during Lent should take place with social distancing.
Busan Diocese is also allowing 30 percent attendance and at least a two-meter distance between participants. It has prohibited face-to-face meetings, events, meals, group recitals and choir singing.
Similar measures have been placed in other Catholic strongholds from Seoul Archdiocese to Cheongju Diocese.
South Korean churches suspended all services last February soon after the first case of Covid-19 was detected in the country, which has a world-class healthcare system. Masses and services resumed in April following the government’s easing of restrictions.
However, services were suspended again in December following a new outbreak that prompted the government to impose strict restrictions.
The pandemic put the Catholic Church in severe pastoral and financial constraints, with most parishes reporting significant drops in income and resources to keep up services. Despite the drawbacks, churches continued to offer spiritual, pastoral and social services to people by reaching out to the poor, homeless and sick. Laypeople joined clergy and religious to raise donations to support the destitute.
South Korea recorded its first Covid-19 case on Jan. 20 last year. A 35-year-old Chinese woman who entered the country from Wuhan, the city where the deadly virus was first detected, was the first official infection. As of now, the country has recorded over 86,000 cases and about 1,550 deaths from coronavirus.
The government imposed what was dubbed one of the largest and best organized epidemic control programs in the world. It included physical distancing, mandatory face masks, mass testing, contact tracing, isolation for infected people and a ban on international flights.
While the measures were effective in halting mass community transmissions, a Christian sect in Daegu was blamed for spreading the virus to dozens of people.
Some 40 people who attended prayers sessions of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu in February were found to be infected.
Members of the sect, founded in the 1980s, gather in the thousands for prayer programs. They sit and kneel close to one another and are forbidden to wear masks during services. Followers of Shincheonji hide their membership as they are not a popular sect in South Korea. They also see sickness as a weakness.
Tens of thousands of South Koreans urged the government to dissolve the sect for violating health guidelines that unleashed the viral outbreak in Daegu metropolitan area, which has a population of 2.5 million.
South Korea has a population of about 51.8 million. According to Pew Research Center, about 46 percent of South Koreans adhere to no religion while 29 percent are Christians and 23 percent Buddhists.
While Protestants make up the majority, the Catholic Church also has a significant following, estimated to be 11 percent of the population or about 5.6 million Catholics.