The Presidents of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) and the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE) are praying from deliverance from the coronavirus pandemic as Churches in Europe are increasing precautions – albeit with some exceptions.

– No sign of peace, no collection, Communion only in the hand… though some countries begin to cancel Masses altogether

Churches in the vast majority of European countries – from Portugal to Ireland to Poland, and beyond – have taken as of this March 12 a series of preventative measures to halt the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.

In some countries, such as Italy, Belgium and the Czech Republic, those measures have now arrived at the extreme of the Church cancelling public Mass celebrations altogether, on the advice of local health authorities.

In other countries where services are still being held, the preventative measures taken by local bishops cover, in the first place, special dispensations from the obligation to physically attend Sunday Mass.

However, the preventative measures also include – for those faithful who do decide to attend the Eucharist – the suspension of the sign of peace, the instruction not to pass around the collection plate and the stipulation that Communion is to be given in the hand only, and not in both species, bread and wine.

Additional restrictions in effect in the majority of countries include the emptying of holy water fonts, a stop to the sharing of missals and hymnbooks and a ban on non-essential parish gatherings and large sacramental celebrations, including confirmations and funerals.

Further advice given by bishops around Europe includes that the faithful wash their hands thoroughly before and after Mass, and that they refrain from kissing and touching crosses, statues, pictures and relics.

Elderly Catholics and faithful showing coronavirus-like symptoms are also being encouraged, in many places, to self-isolate and stay home from Mass.

In the meantime, the Holy See announced today that despite the coronavirus lockdown in Rome, Vatican offices will remain open in order “to ensure the essential services to the Universal Church”, while at the same time respecting employees’ rights to work remotely, wherever possible, in order to halt the spread of the contagion.

– Orthodox Churches hold out, insist Communion cannot transmit virus

But not all of the Churches in the different countries around Europe are taking proper precautions in the face of the coronavirus risk, disrespecting the recommendations of the authorities and putting lives at risk.

One example of a national Church only barely respecting the letter, and not the spirit, of the directive to avoid large gatherings is the Church in Poland, the president of whose Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, is advising priests to avoid accumulations of people in churches by… scheduling more Masses.

Other European Churches resisting common sense instructions to limit person-to-person contact in churches include the Orthodox Churches in Greece, North Macedonia and Bulgaria.

In Orthodox Churches, the faithful communicate using a common spoon, but whereas in Romania Church authorities have at least instructed the faithful to bring their own plastic, disposable spoon to the liturgy, the Greek and North Macedonian Orthodox Churches are continuing to insist that the coronavirus cannot be transmitted by Communion.

“For the members of the Church, receiving Holy Communion and partaking in the Common Cup of Life, cannot, of course, be a cause of transmitting diseases, because believers throughout the ages know that receiving Holy Communion, even in the midst of pandemics, on the one hand is a tangible affirmation of the self-surrender to the Living God, and on the other hand is also a manifestation of love, which surpasses all justified human fears”, the Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece declared March 9.

That attitude has cost the Greek Orthodox Church a confrontation with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who shot back March 12 that “as Prime Minister I am obliged to listen to expert scientists”.

“Whatever measure regulates public gatherings applies to our churches as well”, Mitsotakis insisted, adding: “I look forward to the support of the leadership of the Church [Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens] in pursuing a common objective.

“My institutional role mandates that I take a clear stand on this issue. I know that faith often begins where science ends, but the faith we need now is the faith that we will manage to transcend the crisis. This will happen if we all follow in an organised fashion the instructions of doctors and experts”, Mitsotakis said.

In Bulgaria, meanwhile, the Orthodox Church likewise continued to resist Wednesday the instructions of authorities to contain the virus, defiantly insisting that churches would remain open and the distribution of Communion continue.

“Services will not be canceled and everyone who wants to get close to Holy Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ should not be convinced otherwise because of fears over coronavirus”, the Church said. “Holy Sacraments cannot transmit any contagion or disease as they are a medicine for mental and physical healing and health”.

The attitude of the Greek and Bulgarian Churches contrasts sharply with that of the Ecumenical Patriarchy of Constantinople – ‘first among equals’ among the Orthodox Churches – which this Thursday urged the faithful “to respect both the directives coming from the World Health Organisation and the recommendations and legal dispositions of the individual States”.

– Full text of the European Bishops’ statement:

In response to the difficult time communities all over the world are facing due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak, H.Em. Card. Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ and H.Em. Card. Angelo Bagnasco, respectively Presidents of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) and of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), raise a common prayer to God for help, comfort and salvation.

In the prayer, the two Cardinals ask our Father, Creator of the world, to look upon his “children, who in this difficult time of confusion and dismay [are] seeking strength, salvation and relief” and ask all people of good will to pray God to “heal the sick, comfort their families and give wisdom to our rulers”.

Bishops from the EU and the entire Europe join Pope Francis in reiterating the closeness of the Church to all those struggling due to this outbreak: the victims, their families and all healthcare workers, volunteers and faithful who are in the frontline in caring for those affected and bringing them relief.

As recently stated by H.Em. Card. Peter Turkson, the coronavirus emergency “is a propitious time to understand the value of fraternity and of our bonds with each other in an indissoluble way”. Cardinal Hollerich and Cardinal Bagnasco invite all persons, families and communities to pray and to behave responsibly in order to avoid the spread of the virus and protect life.

According to recent reports of the World Health Organization, since December 2019, about 130,000 people from across 126 countries in the world resulted positive to Covid-19. More than 4,000 already died.

The Secretariats of COMECE and CCEE are also taking precautionary measures to ensure safety and health of their staff and partners.

– Full text of the European Bishops’ prayer:

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