By Elise Ann Allen
ROME (Crux) — Responding to a government appeal for citizens to stay home in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the administrator of the Hong Kong diocese has suspended public Masses until the end of the month, including the Ash Wednesday service marking the beginning of the Lenten season.
In a Feb. 13 statement posted to the Diocese of Hong Kong’s website, Cardinal John Tong noted that government warnings have labeled the next two weeks as “crucial” for combatting the outbreak.
“The Church, being a member of society, has the duty to maintain public hygiene and promote the common good,” Tong said, announcing that all churches, chapels and Catholic centers are to suspend Sunday and weekday Masses Feb. 15-28, with follow-up measures to be announced.
This includes the Feb. 26 observance of Ash Wednesday, which begins a 40-day period marking the Catholic Church’s Lenten season, dedicated to penance, prayer and fasting.
Now officially called COVID-19, the coronavirus first broke out in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. So far it has claimed over 1,300 lives and some 60,000 cases have been confirmed, mostly in China.
Hong Kong, which shares open borders with China, has 50 reported cases and one death, however, pleas for extra caution have arisen in recent days amid fears that the outbreak has worsened, contrary to what experts predicted.
All crowded religious activities apart from weddings and funerals will also be suspended, but parish churches and affiliated chapels will remain open to allow faithful to pray. Parishes are also invited to designate specific days to hold Eucharistic Adoration so people can come and “pray that the coronavirus infections will be contained as soon as possible.”
In place of attending Mass, Cardinal Tong urged Catholics to either watch Mass online and to “receive Holy Communion spiritually,” to reflect on the Sunday readings and to practice specific devotions such as the rosary, spiritual readings, and traditional Catholic prayers.
Priests themselves were also invited to “strictly comply” with the measures Cardinal Tong outlined until further notice is given.
A byproduct of the coronavirus outbreak is that months of protest in Hong Kong have largely been quelled, with many residents observing a strict self-isolation amid fears the virus would spread.
In June protesters took to the streets after the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam sought to push legislation allowing residents to be extradited to mainland China, a move which locals feared would lead to an erosion of the freedoms they have enjoyed under China’s two-system policy.
Protests essentially died out with the outbreak of the coronavirus, however, there are still visible signs that the underlying tensions are still alive and strong, with small demonstrations disputing government-designated quarantine camps.
Mandatory quarantine rules went into effect Feb. 8, stipulating, among other things, that people entering Hong Kong from the mainland are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine to help stop further spread of the virus.
Many locals have complained that sites chosen for the quarantine are too close to residential areas, with some of the protests becoming violent. In late January a small group of protesters set fire to the lobby of Fai Ming Estate, which government officials were planning to convert into a quarantine facility.
Numerous complaints rolled in that the building was near a primary school, and after the incident with the fire, government officials put a halt to preparations on the complex.
On Feb. 9, riot police were called out as residents turned out to protest against the government’s decision to use a space at the Jao Tsung-I Academy as a quarantine camp, also on grounds that it was too close to a residential area. The episode ended with police arresting several protesters who sought to block major roads.
As recently as Tuesday, police arrested two people for breaking the quarantine rules, a crime that could draw a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a fine of up to HK$25,000 [around US$3,200].
In his statement, Cardinal Tong urged Catholics to help and pray for one another as the situation develops, and to strive to live the virtues of faith, hope and love during the difficult situation.