Global Church Fights to Worship Despite COVID

In some areas of the world, bans on all Masses remain in place.

Young mask-clad Christian worshippers attend Christmas morning Mass at St. Matthew' Cathedral in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, on Dec. 25, 2020, during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Young mask-clad Christian worshippers attend Christmas morning Mass at St. Matthew' Cathedral in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, on Dec. 25, 2020, during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (photo: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP via Getty Images)

Throughout the world, the Catholic Church has carried on its mission through varying COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, providing a beacon of hope amidst each country’s struggles on every continent. 

“Even as we seek ways to protect human lives from the spread of the virus, we cannot view the spiritual and moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health,” Pope Francis said Feb. 8 to representatives of countries with whom the Holy See has diplomatic relations. Globally, the Church has faced these challenges with an additional major drop of financial support to its mission activities amid the public-health crisis. The Vatican has informed 1,100 mission dioceses that they must find other means of financial stability. Cardinal Luis Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said the bishops of those dioceses must either reduce to a minimum or eliminate their requests for his department to subsidize their operating expenses, so funds can be directed to places of absolute need. 

North of the U.S. border in Canada in the province of British Columbia, Church leaders are pressing the provincial government to allow people to have the same access to worship as they do to restaurants, gyms and bars. All religious services in the province have been banned since mid-November, after cases accelerated due to the second wave of COVID-19, and the number of people allowed to pray privately in churches is capped at a maximum of 10. Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller has requested the government to explain its decision and asked that churches be allowed to reopen at 10% capacity, with social distancing and sanitation measures in place. “I have no doubts that the ban on religious gatherings has had a detrimental effect on the spirituality and mental health of Catholics in British Columbia,” the archbishop said in a Feb. 23 letter to Catholics.

In Quebec, the historical heartland of Canada’s Catholic faith, the provincial government has been similarly indifferent to the pleas that religion is essential, as even casinos have had more political clout than houses of worship. The pandemic has accelerated the Church’s nearly total collapse in the lives of the province’s Catholics: The archbishop of Quebec City announced in January that the archdiocese’s 29 parishes would be organized into 10 missionary units representing the “tiny part of the population entrusted to us.”

Throughout Latin America, the Catholic Church has tried to adapt to varying public-health provisions to mitigate against COVID-19.

In Mexico, an epidemiological “traffic light,” with colors from red to green, was established in 2020 to signal the severity or safety of each state. Based on this traffic light, measures are taken that range from total restriction of activities, which includes the celebration of the sacraments, to more permissive situations. 

Overall, Latin American bishops have adapted to public-health orders without much protest to the closures of churches and public worship. 

Peru’s authorities have heightened restrictions as a surging COVID-19 outbreak is filling up ICU beds, facilities are running out of oxygen tanks to keep people with severe cases alive, and the government is struggling to procure vaccines. Public worship depends on the severity of restrictions in place. Since January, metropolitan Lima and other areas labeled “extreme” are under 24-hour curfew, and public worship is banned. In other areas, where concern is high or very high, public worship is permitted at reduced capacity and Catholic dioceses have restored public Mass with certain preventative measures. In Chile, the government implements the restrictions, which have tended to limit Catholics to only 10 people at a time in church.

The Church throughout Latin America has seen creative responses to the challenge of COVID-19. Many dioceses established teams of priests to bring spiritual and sacramental care in the hospitals. With Ash Wednesday, churches resorted to distributing “take home” ashes for people to give to their families or bring to work. The virtual Masses of priests and bishops have exceeded expectations, with thousands of attendees exceeding recent years’ Mass attendance in Church. 

In Africa, the Catholic Church has actively cooperated in taking health and safety precautions with government officials, including the temporary suspension of public worship and gatherings at the outset of the virus’ outbreak. But today, in many cases, such as Nigeria, the Church is advocating for their governments to take more action on the public health crisis, even as they face other severe issues such as religious persecution or ethnic violence. 

But in Zimbabwe and South Africa, more aggressive variants of COVID-19 have led those in the government to reimpose restrictions on religious gatherings and curfews. According to Catholic Church News Zimbabwe, Catholics have responded in two extremes in the rural areas. The report said, “While other rural parishes were organized enough to take care of their spiritual fathers, some had been deserted, with no one paying a visit to inquire about the welfare of the parish and the religious who take care of the infrastructure.”

In Tanzania, where there are no restrictions whatsoever, the Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Jude-Thaddeus Ruwa’ichi of Dar es Salaam, is reported to have led internal criticism of the government of President John Magufuli’s handling of the coronavirus and urged Tanzanians to take precautions. Magufuli has refused to recognize the existence of COVID-19, let alone take any public-health measures. And Tanzania now risks losing access to COVAX, a free vaccination procurement program led by the World Health Organization.

Across Europe, most bans on public worship have given way to local or regional restrictions, which range in severity. In France, multiple departments have enacted restrictions due to rising COVID-19 cases. In the Alpes-Maritimes, however, restrictions are so severe that public Mass is suspended, and even freedom of movement is limited. 

A public debate has erupted in Spain over the permitting of local marches on International Women’s Day when local jurisdictions are putting restrictions on Holy Week processions. In Scotland, where all Masses are currently banned, Catholic bishops are objecting to numerical caps that will be imposed by Scotland’s government when public worship is scheduled to resume in April. They also object that the suspension on public worship imposed since Jan. 4 is out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom and appears to privilege secular activities such as sports arenas over religious activities. Still, the restrictions have seen the Catholic faith gain attention through digital outreach. Scottish media recently profiled a Catholic priest in the Highlands for broadcasting Mass over Zoom from his garden oratory. 

In Christianity’s Middle Eastern birthplace, the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding lockdowns to control the virus have created a very fragile political situation for Christians, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanon’s COVID-19 lockdowns have inflamed anger over the country’s economic ruin and the government’s paralysis in the face of intractable corruption and political divisions fed by the region’s conflicts. Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, the head of the Maronite Catholic Church, has called for a United Nations-based international conference as the only hope for Lebanon to re-establish its neutrality.

Pope Francis planned the first-ever papal trip to Iraq March 5-8, in order to give unequivocal solidarity and support to Iraq’s Christians and form stronger ties with Islamic leaders. But ahead of his arrival, there was concern among Christian leaders that the effectiveness of the papal visit could be blunted by the Iraqi government’s recently imposed lockdown measures to contain the virus, which included a ban on all public worship, and that Christians could face blowback if they end up blamed for a “superspreader” event. 

For the Catholic Church in Myanmar, where public gatherings are limited to 30 persons, the Church has gone from working cooperatively with Myanmar’s democratic government to fund the acquisition of COVID-19 vaccines to witnessing the military establishment, the Tatmadaw, take over the government. 

While the bishops have called on Catholics to not involve the Church’s symbols in the protest, many Catholics — lay, clergy, and religious — now are peacefully and prayerfully protesting the military and calling for an end to the dictatorship and the restoration of democracy. 

Meanwhile in Australia, restrictions on religious worship have started to ease up, with states allowing worship, provided social distancing, masking and electronic collection of attendance is observed. 

In the Sydney Archdiocese, Archbishop Anthony Fisher restored the Sunday obligation for Catholics except for those in ill health, the elderly and those concerned about catching COVID-19, but with a “snap-back” dispensation from Sunday Mass to correspond to their state’s fluctuating public-health restrictions. But the Gospel did not take a break, and digital outreach has created new opportunities for evangelization. 

Msgr. Carl Reid, head of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, one of three unique Catholic dioceses with Anglican traditions established by the pope, told the Register that livestreaming daily Mass has kept Catholics in his ordinariate spiritually united through the restrictions. It even led to the formation of a new Santa Cruz community on Guam, which is bringing Anglicans and Protestant Christians into the Catholic Church, and helped train diocesan priests in how to care for the community. “And now,” Msgr. Reid added, “that community is off and running.”

David Ramos, ACI Prensa’s Mexico bureau chief, contributed to this report.