The worst of COVID-19 might be over, but some German bishops are still remaining cautious about returning hastily to public Masses.

– Bishop of Osnabrück: “Staying away from public Masses out of charity could still be a commandment”

Even despite churches being largely open for services again, “there will be no quick ‘normalisation'” in the question of the restoration of public sacramental life, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück warned the faithful of his diocese in a pastoral letter May 5.

Though Bode said he was pleased that “weeks of painful privation” of receiving the sacrament had come to an end, he told Catholics that COVID-19 still poses dangers that must be taken seriously, since health and the containment of the pandemic are still a priority.

That’s why, in the opinion of the Osnabrück bishop, staying away from public Masses “from the basic attitude of Christian charity could still be a commandment of the hour” in some cases.

And that’s on top of the fact that despite the loosening up in the lockdown, ongoing health measures will result in “clear restrictions for the liturgy and pastoral care”.

– Bishop of Magdeburg: Hygiene regulations exclude people from public Eucharists

Bishop Gerhard Feige of the Magdeburg diocese also told Catholics May 6 that he too was worried about the effect that COVID-19 compromises for public health would have on the liturgy.

Feige advised the faithful that Masses in the diocese – apart from funerals – would only be held exceptionally until at least May 24, “as long as state hygiene regulations stand in the way of a dignified celebration” of the Eucharist and some believers “must be excluded from participation” in services.

As further justification for the delay in returning to public Masses, the Magdeburg bishop cited the urgency of ensuring that Catholics among the risk group of the elderly “remain protected and do not feel pressured into actions that endanger their health”, such as feeling a need to go to church.

Not only is every third person in the Saxony-Anhalt state in which the diocese is located an elderly person and hence at risk, but “half of our priests in active service are over 58 years old, and half of our retired priests are over 78 years old”, Feige recalled.

“It hurts me, too, to still have to do without the usual services”, Feige admitted, but the bishop nonetheless encouraged Catholics to continue to rely on private and televised prayer and to consider whether the memory of the Eucharist “which many have already been allowed to receive so often could not continue to have an effect and carry us through the current dry spell”.

By thinking on that, local Catholics could enter into solidarity with the many Catholics worldwide “who, due to the great lack of priests, can only celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion a few times a year”, Feige said.

– Bishop of Würzburg: “The celebration of worship services is almost thwarted” by ongoing restrictions

Another German bishop worried about the ongoing risk of contagion from the Eucharist is Würzburg bishop Franz Jung, who in guidelines for returning to Masses issued at the end of April explained to Catholics that “the most important thing in the situation of the COVID-19 crisis is to protect the health of the faithful”.

Not only that, but the diocesan protocol for returning to public sacramental life raised the question of “whether the form of celebration of worship services can be maintained in its meaning or is almost thwarted by the guidelines and restrictions that have to be made” because of the ongoing virus threat.

For those reasons, Jung said he was only permitting for the time being the return of liturgy of the word services, with the reintroduction of public Masses to come at a later date.

“After a certain amount of time, as well as the gathering of experience and its evaluation, a new consultation will be held on the admission of the public celebration of the Eucharist”, the Würzburg diocese explained, adding that “Holy Mass can continue to be celebrated via streaming services”.

– Bishop of Hildesheim encourages continued reliance on “new and familiar forms of prayer”

For his part, Bishop of Hildesheim Heiner Wilmer also urged Catholics to caution when returning to public Masses, and encouraged them instead to hold small Services of the Word until the threat of the pandemic has further died down.

“We will gather and gain new experiences with new and familiar forms of praying together. I am convinced that these new and familiar forms of prayer will carry and strengthen us just as they have done over the past weeks”, Wilmer wrote to the faithful in a letter last week.

“Gradually and very carefully, we can get back to celebrating the Eucharist at our own discretion”, the bishop added.

Wilmer made headlines during the acute phase on the pandemic after he criticised some Catholics’ “fixation” with the Mass, and warned some faithful were behaving during the ban on the public celebration of the Eucharist “as if their entire faith will break down if they cannot go to Mass and receive communion”.

“I don’t think it a good thing that at the moment Masses are being streamed from every little chapel or sitting room, as it shows how poor (in faith) we have become”, the Bishop of Hildesheim decried at the height of the crisis.

He added that Catholics should remember that “according to the Second Vatican Council, the Lord is not only present in the Eucharist but also in the Scriptures and the Bible”.

Encouraging the faithful to private prayer and online liturgies of the word, Wilmer insisted that the Church “should take seriously Christ’s words, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst'”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.