Public Masses resume in Austria with extremely strict attendance rules
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VIENNA, Austria, April 24, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Public Masses and other church services in Austria will be possible again starting May 15. During a press conference on Thursday, federal minister Susanne Raab and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said only one faithful would be allowed to participate per 20 square meters of church space.
Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, later explained that would amount to roughly 120 people in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the famous landmark in the Austrian capital. However, countless small churches all across Catholic Austria would be limited to very small congregations, he said.
Raab thanked religious communities for their continuing “sacrifices for the protection of society and the welfare of others.” She then proceeded to talking of “a new chapter” in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, calling for “caution” and “mindfulness.”
Apart from limiting attendance at church services to one person per 20 square meters, Raab said social distancing requirements need to be maintained. She explained that access to churches would be supervised by the local communities, not by police or any other government entity. Even within churches, she said, people would have to wear masks.
Churches and similar facilities used for religious gatherings provide a higher risk for spreading the virus, Raab claimed, referring to the confined space, the duration, and the fact that people generally speak and sing.
Raab emphasized that the measures were not imposed by the government as a “law,” or “regulation,” or “decree.” In other words, the various churches and religious communities in Austria imposed the measures on themselves, in agreement with the government.
Cardinal Schönborn said Pope Francis had “consistently exemplified” how to live with the restrictions imposed as a consequence of COVID-19 and still participate intensely in the life of the Church.
While the measures presented by Raab are one thing, all 16 officially recognized religious communities are set to prepare their own guidelines, specific to their own situations. Schönborn said the Austrian bishops are currently in the process of drafting a document. The question of the reception of Holy Communion is still undecided.
During the press conference, Schönborn stressed the “very good cooperation” between the government and the Church, calling the relationship “exemplary.”
On Tuesday, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that church services would be possible again beginning May 15. Freedom of religion, he said, is a “very, very precious good that is also constitutionally protected.” Kurz thanked religious communities in Austria for supporting “the decisions of the federal government.”
Prior to that, a number of young Catholics in Austria had pleaded with their bishops to “please, give us back Holy Mass.” In a short video released Sunday, the young people were directly addressing the bishops, humbly asking to be able to go to Holy Mass again, which had been banned because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They even suggested how they would help with practical issues of reopening churches while keeping people safe. “We want to support our shepherds and offer our help,” one man said.
“We will be there during the Mass to make sure nobody is less than six feet apart,” another man added in the video, which has been released not only in the original German, but with English, Spanish, and French subtitles, as well.
The pews would be disinfected after each church service. “If there is a lack of resources, we will organize the masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves,” a young woman offered.
Finally, the young people said they would provide lists on Doodle, making sure of the number of people signing up for each Mass.
On March 11, dioceses across Austria first dispensed Catholics from their Sunday Mass obligation “should participation in Sunday services not be possible or advisable.”
Mass attendance, especially on Sundays, was made almost impossible by a government decree, which prohibited events indoors if more than 100 people be present. Five hundred people were allowed to congregate for events outdoors.
Cardinal Schönborn announced, “Within the Archdiocese of Vienna we accept the guidelines of the federal government regarding the coronavirus preventative measures. They therefore apply to all forms of worship and church events.”
Parish priests, he added at the time, have to ensure that the measures are implemented locally.
The Archdiocese of Vienna said Holy Communion should be received not on the tongue, but in the hand. Catholics in Austria were also told not to drink the Blood of Christ from the chalice. The use of holy water and the practice of the sign of peace should also be avoided.
A few days later, beginning March 16, the Austrian bishops banned all Masses and other church services. Funerals were ordered to take place with only very few people. Requiem Masses had to be pushed back to a later date.
“I am aware that these are serious measures that we do not take lightly,” the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna said. “All this is about protecting, above all, the group of old and sick people who are most at risk. The measures are an expression of a properly understood Christian love of self and of neighbor.”
“We as a Church do not stop being there for the worries and needs of people in a responsible way, praying for them and celebrating the Eucharist, especially in this difficult situation,” he explained.
Meanwhile, in France, the government did not agree to begin celebrating public Masses on May 11, as the bishops had proposed during a conference call with President Emmanuel Macron. Instead, all religious gatherings are prohibited at least until mid-June.