A week ago religious leaders heaved a collective sigh of relief when they came to know that places of religious worship would be opened w.e.f. 8th June. Some even issued victorious press statements hailing the decision. They had obviously not read the fine print on the distinction between places of worship, and holding of religious congregations.
The cat was out of the bag when the Ministry of Health and family welfare issued its Office Memorandum F No Z 28015/19/2020 – EMR (Pt) dt 4/6/2020, whose directives come into effect from 8th June.
Clause No 1 describes places of religious worship as those that “get frequented by large numbers of people for spiritual solace”. Clause No 3 enumerates “generic preventive measures” that are common to several other public places. They dissuade those above 65 years of age, or below 10, from attending. The other generic measures include maintaining a minimum distance of 6 feet, masks or face covers, hand washing with soap, use of alcohol based hand sanitizers, respiratory etiquettes, no spitting and encouragement of the Arogya Setu App.
Clause No. 4 specifies additional measures applicable to places of religious worship, like our churches. Some of these border on the stringent or impractical. Sec 1 stipulates that the “Entrance to have mandatory hand hygiene (sanitizer dispenser) and thermal screening provisions”. This would be simple enough if there were just one entrance. But most churches are designed with a naive and wings, signifying a cross. So they have multiple entrances, which also help in cross ventilation. Keeping all the doors open is necessary, at least at this time of the year. A medium sized church would have 7 to 9 entrances. This would require that many sanitizers and thermal scanners, besides the trained personnel to man them. Section iv asks for prominent display of posters/standees enumerating the preventive measures to be taken. That would be a onetime task, not unreasonable. Section v advises the “staggering of visitors”. This is a serious problem. A church usually has a congregation that worships together, and not a string of visitors. This section says that this should be done “if possible”. It thereby leaves it open to misinterpretation and high handedness by overzealous enforcement agencies. Most Catholic churches are packed like sardines on Sundays. Large parishes already have several services beginning from Saturday evening, and right through Sunday. How much more can they “stagger” these services without being at daggers drawn with the Government?
Section vi is even more peculiar. It says that shoes/footwear be preferably taken off inside one’s own vehicle, or be kept in separate slots by the persons themselves. In urban parishes people rarely remove their footwear. Is removing footwear now mandatory? The Memorandum is not clear on this. Other than Christians, all other believers do remove their footwear, but it is only the Sikhs who have a well organized way of storing footwear by issuing tokens. Now they too would not be allowed to do so!
Section x says “preferably separate entry and exits for visitors shall be organized”. This again is alright for visitors, as to a temple; but impractical for congregational prayer/worship as in churches and mosques.
Section xii mandates washing hands and feet with soap and water before entering the premises. This again is as vague as the Government can be. A premises is different from a building. So are these ablutions to be performed at the entrance gate of the premises, or at the entrance door of the building? Only mosques have mandatory provisions and infrastructure for washing the face, hands and feet. Setting up such an infrastructure in a practical and hygenic manner could take time. The government does not seem to have applied its mind to different scenarios in various religions.
Section xvii states that seating arrangements must have adequate social distancing, that is six feet. However, in most churches the pews/benches are just about two feet apart and seat 6 to 8 persons. We would now have to remove most of the pews/ benches, and not allow more than two persons on a bench. In effect this would mean that a church could at most allow only 1/6th of its seating capacity.
Section xv very specifically forbids the touching of statues, idols and holy books! What about the lectionary and hymn books? Would these also be part of the banned list?
Section xvi prohibits large gatherings and congregations. This in effect means that the Eucharistic or large prayer services, including novenas and rosaries, are on the banned list.
Section xvii forbids choirs and singing groups. Only pre-recorded devotional music would be allowed. This is understandable because a choir would not be able to maintain physical distancing. Besides, loud voices would harbour the additional danger of carrying respiratory droplets to a greater distance. St Cecilia had said that the one who sings prays twice. This is just the opposite. Imagine a service without singing. It would be dull and meaningless.
Section xx is the final blow to any hopes of celebrating the Eucharist. It expressly forbids physical offerings like prasad/distribution or sprinkling of holy water. As far as I am aware, only Catholics and Orthodox churches have the asperges. In Hindi Holy Communion is referred to as Param Prasad (actually a horrible translation). This would be banned. What about water used for baptism? This too is prima facie banned.
Ironically Section xxi states that community kitchens, langars, anndaan and food distribution is permissible! So sections xx and xxi are contradictory.
Without going into the merits of congregational or community worship, it would seem that in the present circumstances and guidelines, it would be impossible to organize the same in our churches. Christians are hardest hit, and to some extent the Muslims. But Hindus and Sikhs could easily “visit” their places of worship with minor restraints.
In the circumstances it would not be advisable for dioceses or parishes to rush into organizing congregational worship or community prayer services. Perhaps, the CBCI would do well to seek more clarity on the many confusing and contentious issues in the Government Memorandum. Till such time I would say that our people should simply stay home and stay safe. We are already touching 2,50,000 cases and 7000 fatalities. So as of now, going to church is simply not worth the risk.
(The writer is a former National President of the All India Catholic Union)(Published on 8th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 24)