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March 13, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) ― The Polish bishops have guaranteed Catholics across the country caught in the coronavirus epidemic access to religious services and retreats, even if the retreats must be conducted online. 

The Permanent Council of the Polish Bishops’ Conference has made a number of recommendations to the bishops regarding precautionary measures, including freeing many people from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, but has also stressed that the clergy will be available. 

“For two millennia the church has served the sick and needy, even in the times of epidemic, without giving up the proclamation of the Gospel or the celebration of the holy sacraments,” their statement reads.

Masses will continue to be said in Polish churches, but the Permanent Council has recommended that diocesan bishops grant a temporary dispensation from the weekly Sunday obligation to a number of Catholics: the elderly, those showing signs of infection (e.g. those coughing, blowing their noses, and/or with fever), children, young people and the adults who look after them, and people who are frightened by the possibility of being infected. The dispensation is only until March 29.  

“Taking advantage of the dispensation means that absence from Sunday Mass at the indicated time is not a sin,” the order continues. 

“At the same time, we encourage people taking the dispensation to persist in personal and family prayer. We also encourage spiritual communion with the Church community through radio or television transmissions or the internet.” 

The Polish bishops have taken a number of steps to limit the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus from spreading through the faithful who will be attending Mass. Priests and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion must wash their hands before Mass, receiving Holy Communion in the hand is “now encourage(d),” nodding must take the place of shaking hands as the Sign of Peace, and the kissing of the cross and relics of saints is now forbidden until March 29. In addition, protective screens will be put in confessionals and holy water will not be available from public stoups. 

“In the current situation we remind you that, ‘just as hospitals treat illnesses of the body, so the churches serve, among other things, in treating illnesses of the soul, therefore it is unimaginable, that we would not pray in our churches’,” it continued, quoting Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, the leader of the Polish Bishops’ Conference. 

“Therefore, we encourage all the faithful to visit churches beyond liturgies for zealous personal prayer.”

The Permanent Council recommended to priests that they keep churches open all day, provide extra opportunities to the faithful for confession and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and ― taking proper precautions ― visit parishioners who are elderly or ill. 

However, some ordinary Church activities have been postponed or suspended, including liturgies bestowing the sacrament of Confirmation, graduating class pilgrimages to the Jasna Góra Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa, and parish retreats for schools. At the same time, however, the Permanent Council enjoined parish priests to offer retreats over the internet. The wisdom of offering retreats for adults and other group activities is left to the discernment of the priests. 

The Permanent Council also enjoined the Catholic community to take special care of the elderly and needy, “for example, with help in grocery shopping,” and to pray for protection against illness as well as “peaceful hearts and the grace of a profound conversion for each of us.” 

“We commend to God all those who have died from the coronavirus,” they continued. 

“We pray for health for the sick, those who care for them, doctors, medical personnel as well as everyone in the sanitary services. We pray for an end to the epidemic. In accordance with the Tradition of the Church we encourage the singing in our church of the (Trisagion) supplication “Holy God, Holy (and) Mighty … From air, hunger, fire and war, spare us, O Lord.” 

The robust piety of the Polish bishops and their determination to fight the coronavirus pandemic through spiritual means is in marked contrast to the willingness of other bishops in Europe, the USA and French Canada to shut the churches and leave the faithful without recourse to personal attendance at Mass. Earlier this week, Archbishop Gądecki, the leader of the Polish Bishops Conference, asked that more Sunday Masses than usual be said so that the congregations at each will be smaller.