Due to the recent rapid rise of COVID-19 cases, churches in Manitoba are quickly altering their plans for Christmas services.
The two Roman Catholic archdioceses and the Ukrainian Catholic archdiocese in Manitoba have decided to offer a number of Masses this Christmas for vaccinated people only.
In a message sent Dec. 21, Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, Archbishop Albert LeGatt of Saint Boniface, and Archbishop Lawrence Huculak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Winnipeg said parishes can choose to designate one or more Masses from Dec. 24 to 26 to be only for fully immunized persons.
"At the Masses for the immunized, people will need to show proof of vaccination at the door," the message says. "Those tasked with verifying proof of vaccination must be prepared to deal with people, kindly and firmly."
Health and safety protocols such as social distancing, mask wearing, sanitizing and capacity limits are to be maintained for all services, the archbishops said.
In addition to reserving a Mass for only vaccinated people, parishes must provide one each day for everyone — regardless of vaccine status. Parishes are also encouraged to livestream one or more such events.
Previously, the three archdioceses had planned to open the Christmas Masses to everyone, without requiring proof of vaccination.
"We are the body of Christ," the archbishops said in their message. "We are in this all together. One of our primary goals must be the love of neighbour and so the common good for all in society — now especially in terms of security of health and life for all, with a particular attention to those vulnerable or fragile in their health."
For LeGatt, the decision has to do with the large numbers of people who normally want to attend at Christmas, along with the danger posed by the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
"There are many people who want to come to Mass, but may worry about being around unvaccinated people because of health or other frailties at this time," he said. "We want to accommodate them at Christmas."
The Saint Boniface archbishop was adamant this is not a change in principle for Roman Catholics in the province.
"The house of God is open to all, all are welcome," he said, adding it is a pastoral response to the current pandemic situation. "We just want to make sure people feel safe at this moment, while ensuring services are open to all."
Other Manitoba churches are also pivoting under increasing pandemic pressure.
River East Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in the North Kildonan neighbourhood of Winnipeg, has decided to cancel its in-person Christmas Eve service in favour of livestream only.
"Given the many questions surrounding this variant, the rising numbers everywhere, and the advice from our experts, the decision has been made to move our worship services totally online for the time being, including our Christmas Eve service," the church announced.
Only participants with an active role in the Christmas Eve service will be allowed in the sanctuary.
"For some of you this will be a relief; for others, a major disappointment," the church said. "We are grateful for your understanding."
St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Winnipeg will hold in-person services Dec. 24 but will require proof of vaccination to attend.
For Charleswood United Church, the rise of Omicron makes no difference — the Winnipeg church had already decided to just do an online-only Christmas Eve service.
"The prospect of returning to in-person attendance on what has traditionally been a heavily-attended service and communicating requirements seems unwise," said minister Michael Wilson.
"As it turns out, that has left us in a good position and our plans for an online Christmas Eve service have been in place for a while."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.