France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland. While the doors of Italian parishes today reopened to the faithful after more than two months of lockdown, governments in Europe are more cautious and requested not only Bishops’ Conferences but also leaders of various faith communities to wait until the end of the month – if not the summer – before allowing public access to religious services. However, Europe’s Catholic Churches submitted comprehensive plans to governments envisaging protective and safety measures, so as not to lower the guard against the Coronavirus. Nevertheless, talks and meetings are still in progress. It is hoped, at least from a Catholic perspective, to be able to celebrate Pentecost at church with the faithful.
Mounting pressure especially in France over the reopening of churches. Controversy broke out following the speech on 28 April last by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at the National Assembly announcing the postponement of the date for the resumption of religious services, from 11 May to 2 June. The following day, in a statement, the Permanent Council of the Bishops’ Conference of France, noted “with regret” the decision “imposed on Catholics and on all religions in our country.” “Freedom of worship is a fundamental part of democratic life.” Videoconferences with the various religious leaders ensued along with a meeting between the President of the French bishops and the Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner. In response to the requests of religious communities, 67 members of parliament signed and presented a joint statement. On Monday, May 18, the Council of State, the highest administrative jurisdiction in France, ruled that the government must lift the “general and absolute” ban on religious gatherings, imposed in the context of the health emergency, defining it as “disproportionate in nature.” This prohibition – the ruling states – constitutes a “serious and manifest violation of the freedom of worship.” The judges request that it be lifted “within eight days.”
The announcement of the reopening of the Marian shrine of Lourdes, albeit “partial”, from May 16th for individual pilgrims from the region, for a maximum distance of 100 km, came as a positive signal in France. The Rector of the Shrine, Monsignor Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, hailed the decision as “a sign of great hope.”
Cautious approach also in the UK. Boris Johnson submitted a plan that postpones the reopening of churches until 4 July. In a statement the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales voiced disappointment at the decision and in an interview with BBC Radio “4’s Today programme” aired on 14 May, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, declared: “What we want to say (to ministers) is that the issue of how people are able to practice their faith are profound and are sensitive and we would like a bit more sensitivity from the government.” “We would like to remind them that the Catholic Church certainly has put forward already detailed protocols, agreed with Public Health England about how we can start the process, step by step, of making churches available for people.”
Churches remain closed also in Ireland: possibly to reopen in the summer. On 14 May the leaders of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly (respectively President, Vice-President and Secretary of the Irish Bishops’ Conference) met with the Taoiseach (the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland) Leo Eric Varadkar for an exchange of “ideas on the reopening of places of worship during the summer.” The three bishops briefed the government on the efforts being made at all levels to draw up a national plan, pledging to do their utmost to implement and guarantee public health protection measures.
The Swiss bishops have also been speaking out, with the President of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, the Archbishop of Basel, Msgr Felix Gmür, representing them. In a letter sent on 12 May last, the archbishop “suggested” to the Federal Council, to resume public religious services starting with the Solemnity of the Ascension (21 May) or, at the latest, at Pentecost (31 May), and declared that the Swiss Bishops’ Conference has published a “framework plan” that provides for all safety measures. Criticism was voiced also here: “While many activities have been resumed as of 11 May – underlined the President of the bishops – religious services are still forbidden. This is no longer tolerable,” said the Archbishop. “For hundreds of thousands of faithful, weekly services are an existential necessity. They need a long-term vision.”
In Belgium, this ”battle” united religious leaders who requested and obtained a meeting with the Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, on May 5th to discuss the gradual resumption of religious celebrations in places of worship. The Catholic Church was represented by Msgr. Guy Harpigny, Bishop of Tournai, and Msgr. Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp. The Minister of Justice expressed his gratitude to the religious representatives for the full compliance with the regulations laid down by the National Security Council of the federal government and assured that the gradual resumption of public worship is being debated in the National Security Council.