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Faithful rejoice as church doors open again after months of lockdown, restrictions still in effect

Open again: Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Father Dantus Thottahil inside St John Vianney Church, Manly. Numbers on the pews indicate where up to 10 parishioners can sit during Mass. And, inset, Father Thottathil shuts the doors at St Mary MacKillop Church, Birkdale on Brisbane’s bayside in March. Photos: Mark Bowling

CHURCHES across the country are re-opening, with restrictions on public worship starting to ease.

Under an updated COVID-19 Safe Plan for Brisbane Archdiocese, parishes are welcoming a staged return to regularly scheduled Masses.

Stage one allows only for up to 10 people in church and strict social distancing requirements of 1.5 metres between people.

The liturgical season has changed from Lent to Easter, and he has grown a beard during lockdown, but there’s a “thirst in our hearts” for coming back to church, according to Fr Dantus Thottathil at Brisbane’s St John Vianney’s parish, Manly.

“We have opened the pubs and clubs. We need to open the churches,” he said.

“For Christians this is the way we feel comfortable with God.”

As restrictions slowly ease, Masses will continue to be live-streamed from St Stephen’s Cathedral on Sundays and weekdays, and may continue to be live-streamed from some parishes.

Churches may open for private prayer, for up to 10 people at a time.

Visitors must sanitise their hands upon entry and exit, and churches will be thoroughly cleaned after Mass.

From June 12, maximum church attendance may increase to 20 people at Mass, and from July 10, subject to state and federal government, Mass numbers may increase to a maximum of 100 people.

Fr Thottathil, a priest of the Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, said the lockdown had been “a time to come back to God, to think about our emptiness of life”.

“People are interested in God. I mean even if the churches are closed, their hearts are not closed – that’s what I realised during this period of time,” he said.

“They are just looking forward to coming back to church as normal. So there’s a thirst in our hearts.”

Since church doors closed at the end of March, Fr Thottathil, who presides over two parishes, St John Vianney’s and Mary MacKillop Church, Birkdale, said many people said they felt isolated.

“They told me ‘we feel Church as our family’. Now is an opportunity to share happiness and feeling comfortable with others again – celebrating, singing and talking again,” he said.

“It’s very important for our mental health to be supporting each other at this time.”

Fr Thottathil said parish offices were now accepting calls from anyone expressing an interest in attending Mass.

Church attendees are required to record their name, phone number and address as a way of contact tracing if required.

Public health authorities continue to advise people over 70 to remain at home during this time, although it is up to individuals to choose whether to follow public health and advice and attend worship services or not.

And at this stage it is unclear when parishes will be able to resume hospitality after Masses.

“The Australian Catholic Church is adopting a cautious approach to opening churches in order to protect the health and safety of parishioners and the wider community,” Brisbane’s Auxiliary bishop Ken Howell said.

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