Manitoba’s five Catholic archbishops are asking provincial health officials to consult with faith leaders before implementing protocols that guide religious gatherings.
"I think the province sees the value of the churches and that they are part of the solution, not the problem," said Archbishop Richard Gagnon, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg, of their request for the province to consult with religious leaders.
In a Jan. 6 letter to Health Minister Heather Stefanson and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, they asked for flexibility in allowing faith-based gatherings. But on Tuesday, when the province released a proposed list of restrictions that might be loosened as of Saturday, in-person religious services were not included.
Half of the nearly 70,000 Manitobans who completed the online Engage MB survey said it was not important to them to attend in-person religious services; 29 per cent stated it was a priority. Those numbers may not mean much because people who don’t attend services don’t find them important, said Archbishop Albert LeGatt of St. Boniface.
"It hasn’t anything to do with the pandemic," he said of the people who responded to the survey question on religious services.
"It wouldn’t be important to them at any time."
All in-person religious gatherings were suspended last November but can continue virtually through recorded or livestreamed services.
The bishops asked Stefanson and Roussin to consider allowing religious groups to meet at a reduced capacity, following all pandemic protocols.
"Our church communities have shown themselves to be controlled environments where protocols are carefully followed and there is no socializing before or after services," states the letter, signed by the five Catholic archbishops.
"If we can begin with this in January, then we can build from there, especially with the advent of the vaccination program."
Gagnon said religious leaders participated in a telephone conference call with provincial officials in November after critical level restrictions were implemented and they asked to be consulted before public health guidelines were to change again.
"I thought it was a good conversation, except it was after the fact and maybe they should reach out before," said Gagnon, adding Catholic bishops have not been involved in any conversation about revised protocols that may take effect Saturday.
In addition to Gagnon and LeGatt, the signatories to the Jan. 6 letter include Metropolitan Lawrence Huculak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg, Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas and Archbishop Anthony Krotki of Churchill-Hudson Bay.
The conversations with religious leaders also need to extend to who is eligible for early COVID-19 vaccinations, said Rabbi Allan Finkel on behalf of the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis, which asked provincial officials on Wednesday to consider clergy as a priority group.
He says clergy of all faith groups offer prayers to sick and dying parishioners, counsel grieving families, and make other pastoral calls as part of their duties.
"We do this kind of work and it’s a question of getting us into the mind" of vaccination officials, said Finkel, rabbi at Temple Shalom.
Religious leaders welcomed the proposal to double the number of people attending funerals from five to 10, saying that small increase means family members don’t have to choose among themselves who can participate. It allows Jews to meet their religious requirements of having 10 mourners at a funeral.
"To have 10 at a funeral service feels more like the way it’s supposed to be," said Finkel of the number needed to participate in the Kaddish prayer.
Although religious groups may be eager to meet again for worship, they are also experienced in taking the long view of life’s challenges, said Rev. Gerry Michalski of Soul Sanctuary, an evangelical Christian congregation which has not met in person since last March.
"To me, it’s patience," he said.
"I don’t like it, but I have to live in patience."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.