As of Friday 22 October, Melburnians can enjoy greater freedoms as the city finally emerges from its sixth lockdown. What started as a snap lockdown went on to last almost three months and earned Victorians the unenvied distinction of having lived through the longest cumulative lockdown in the world. For many, the next few weeks will include long-awaited reunions with loved ones, a return to community sport and the first restaurant meal or drink at the pub. For people of faith, it will be the first time in months that they can physically visit their local parish and participate in the sacraments.

The latest step in Victoria's roadmap to reopening means that places of worship can host 20 fully vaccinated people indoors and 10 people outdoors for people whose vaccination status is unknown. These restrictions are expected to ease further come 5 November, when it is projected that Victoria will reach its 80 per cent double vaccination goal. At that point, places of worship will be allowed to welcome up to 150 fully vaccinated attendees indoors and 500 outdoors.

The reopening of church doors comes as a welcome relief for parish priests longing to reconnect with their people.

‘We can finally begin to gather in our church for prayer and worship again,’ said Fr Michael Gallacher, parish priest of St Roch’s in Glen Iris, in a letter sent to parishioners on Thursday. He said their current plan is intended for the fortnight between 22 October and 5 November, and is ‘designed to give as many people as possible the opportunity to pray in our church and access the Lord in the Eucharist, within the current limits.’

‘As we did last year at this time, we will begin by offering a short Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion on Sundays (and Saturday evenings). Each weekday there will be a morning Mass, and there will be three evenings each week where an hour’s Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament will be offered.’

In the south-eastern suburb of Mount Waverley, Fr Justel Callos said he and the parish team are setting up canopies on Friday in preparation for outdoor Masses on the weekend of 23-24 October. His parish is offering four outdoor Masses across the weekend and one indoor Mass for those with an unknown vaccination status.

Fr Justel said that bookings for the 5pm Vigil Mass were already nearing capacity.

All our outdoor Masses will be for the 50 vaccinated people. People are craving to go back to Mass so I decided to go ahead (with outdoor Masses). The weather will be terrible I think so wish us luck!’

At St Simon the Apostle Parish in Rowville, parishioners will be able to gather for weekend Masses with the allowed 20 inside the church, and a simulcast will be set up in the parish hall for those who are not yet vaccinated.

It's been close to three months since churches have been able to open

Not every parish will be reopening this weekend, however, with some opting to wait until the weekend of 6-7 November when a greater number of parishioners will be able to gather indoors.

Fr Linh Pham, parish priest of the Brunswick and Moreland Catholic Mission, said in consultation with the local parish council, Masses would continue online this weekend while preparations were made to reopen once more were allowed inside the churches.

Further north at the partnered parishes of Greensborough, Greensborough North and Diamond Creek, parish priest Fr Steven Rigo welcomed the opening up of places of worship but said he was mindful that many in the community remain cautious and anxious, ‘and that density quotients will prevent our full communities gathering as we would wish.’ Weekday Masses will resume for locals from 22 October and the normal schedule of Sunday Masses will resume on the weekend of 6-7 November.

Writing to parishioners, he said, ‘I know the pain many of you have been experiencing during these all too many months in not being able to gather to celebrate Mass. … At this stage it is important for the health of those who are vaccinated and of those who for whatever reason are not vaccinated that we provide for the needs of both and as such we will have separate Masses for both.

I look forward to gathering with you in increasing numbers in the weeks and months ahead.’

The same is planned over at the parishes of Camberwell, Balwyn Deepdene and Surrey Hills Wattle Park, where parish priest Fr Brendan Reed said their parishes will have a gradual reopening, with the next two weeks’ focus going towards accumulated bookings for funerals, weddings, and baptisms for the numbers allowed.

‘Once vaccination rates reach 80 per cent of eligible Victorians we will once again open our Churches for Sunday and weekday Masses on a regular basis.’

Since the pandemic hit, many parishes have had to tackle a backlog of sacraments from baptisms to First Holy Communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals.

Fr Michael said he and Deacon Joseph Leach will begin working through the ‘backlog of baptisms we have on the books’ as soon as doors reopen in Melbourne.

Contact your local parish to find out what is planned for your church.

Featured image: St Francis Xavier Box Hill