We are not there yet!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Re: Preparation for the Re-opening of Churches
It is two weeks since my last letter regarding the announcement by President Ramaphosa that all Places of Worship may open their doors for public worship under the National State of Disaster, Alert level 3. In this letter I would like to: acknowledge your contribution to our recent consultation, call on all to prepare for safe return to places of worship, share resource material to that end and reveal that we have no date for re-opening of the Churches in sight as yet.
I am extremely grateful for all the contributions that I have received from the Clergy which were collated by the Deans and sent to me. I thank Fr Jerry Browne, Chairperson of the Diocesan Priests Council for facilitating that consultative process. There is clearly a consensus on several points of your contribution, that: it was still not safe to open our churches to public worship because the pandemic is growing rapidly; our province and the country have not reached the peak, so the curve is not flattening yet; about 80% of our parish communities are concentrated in the two metros: Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City which have been declared as hotspots of the pandemic; a lot of work still needs to be done to make our churches and premises covid-19 compliant; and the latter requires resources.
Mixed responses were received on the precise date for opening especially as it is now winter; the status of the Clergy as “Essential Workers” and its implications; freedom to go or not to go to church and the celebration of other sacraments.
Following on your input and suggestions, we are still not in the position to declare our churches open for public worship, here in the Catholic Diocese of Port Elizabeth. However, all of us priests, deacons and religious involved in pastoral ministry, parish councils, finance committees, maintenance committees and all lay formations are requested to prepare all our churches and premises diligently for the eventual return to public worship, in the near future.
We have two weeks to make sure that our places of worship are covid-19 compliant. Our parish communities are blessed with many people who are essential workers in the medical, health, education, professional cleaning and other sectors, please invite them to your Covid-19 Compliance Teams or Committees that you will be setting up. I am confident that they will be most delighted to use their competence and expertise to become part of building the Kingdom of God. Many of them are already involved and are advising you in your awareness and prevention programmes against the coronavirus. I applaud them and appreciate their courage, forbearance, commitment, compassion and sacrifice.
I would like to present to you a working document that will help you in the task of preparing our churches for public worship. It outlines its purpose, that is, what it seeks to achieve; then it repeats what we know already about the nature of covid-19; it directs its focus on phased re-opening of our churches: what needs to be done and acquired prior to opening; when the faithful convene for Mass, what should happen before they enter the building, how we are expected to conduct ourselves during the celebration and what happens after the Mass. Evidently, this document does not pretend to be exhaustive, perfect and the final on covid-19. It serves as a guideline to be followed and a valuable resource for use in our diocese.
I also attach the Government Norms and Standards that were issued under the National State of Disaster Act to regulate the Re-opening of Places of Worship for public services. Many of them are not entirely new. They are in use already whenever we conduct funerals in our churches.
It must be made clear that attending the celebration of Holy Mass in a church is a decision each person must make without risking themselves, their families and their brothers and sisters. Those regarded as high risk, such as the elderly, people with underlying health conditions and those susceptible to winter related allergies and flu are ALL encouraged to be most cautious and are advised to stay at home rather than attend a public celebration. They must continue to pray and worship in the heart of their families which are called to become cradles of faith, oasis of hope, hearth of love, sanctuaries of holiness and life. Our Christian families and homes are ‘domestic churches’.
Other Sacraments that may be administered are: Baptism – in danger of death as provided by our Catholic teaching. This excludes physical contact, in the form of marking the recipient with the sign of the Cross on the forehead and anointing; Communion – as Viaticum (“Food for the Journey”) and Anointing of the Sick when going for serious medical procedures e.g. surgery and in danger of death. In all these instances the priest must avoid physical contact with a patient, wear a surgical mask and all appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and comply strictly with all other Covid-19 requirements.
Priests may administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation, do counselling and attend to spiritual direction when they consider it an absolute necessity for the wellbeing of the faithful concerned. This can be done on an appointment basis in an appropriate venue that is inviting, open, spacious, nicely lit up, ventilated, with chairs that are spaced and a little table on which, if possible there are Christian symbols e.g. crucifix, bible, an icon, big rosary and candle placed on top. It must respect privacy. Both parties must wear their masks and observe all covid-19 provisions for their safety.
The Leadership of the Diocese cannot commit itself to any date in particular of the actual re-opening of our churches. This will be determined by the state of readiness and compliance of our churches; the number of factors that are beyond our control, such as, the direction that is taken by the pandemic; whether or not Covid-19 National Command Council (NCC) judges that our country may progress to Alert level 2, where there will be greater flexibility in terms of numbers we can accommodate or revert to Alert levels 4 or 5 with all those implications.
If there are any challenges that are encountered in our process of preparation our Deans may be contacted because they are in the field working with you. The senior clergy who are still in ministry full time, those who have comorbidities and are uncertain of their situation going forward, are most welcome to contact me or the Vicar General in writing or through any other means.
I thank you in anticipation of your understanding, kind cooperation and fraternal collaboration as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord.
Today we celebrate Youth Day in South Africa, may the Lord Bless and protect all our young people during these uncertain times.
Happy Feast Day of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus!
Yours Faithfully in Christ
+Bishop Vincent Mduduzi Zungu OFM
Please download the Detailed instructions for re-opening churches HERE
Please download the COGTA Regulations HERE