South Africa Declares COVID-19 National Disaster, Church Limits Mass to 100

Bishops of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC)

Following the declaration by South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa that COVID-19 is a national disaster in the country, the first declaration of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa with 61 cases confirmed, the Catholic Bishops there have directed clergy, religious and the lay faithful to observe preventive measures including a not-more-than 100-person congregation at Holy Mass.

“The Catholic Church has also considered what the State President has issued in terms of limiting the crowd of worshippers to hundred (100). Attendance of Sunday Mass is to be limited to a hundred,” reads part of a statement issued by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) Monday, March 16.

In the statement, the Bishops who include those in Eswatini and Botswana encourage priests to celebrate “more Masses to smaller groups.”

Bishops, on their part, “will grant a dispensation from the normal obligations to attend Sunday Mass and the other sacramental celebrations to the elderly, the sick and children.”

Signed by SACBC President, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, the collective statement instructs the clergy to be careful and prudent in the administration, celebration and attendance of the Sacraments of Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders.

“Safer measures are to be taken in administering the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation,” the Bishops have stated, without providing specifics of the measures.

They have called for “extra-ordinary safe measures” in the process of anointing the sick and visiting them and announced that “necessary permission will be granted for general absolution for the duration of the pandemic.”

Other preventive measures outlined in the two-page statement sent to ACI Africa include an encouragement to Bishops to postpone ordinations to priesthood and diaconate, restriction of wedding attendance to “only immediate family members,” funeral attendance to “below a hundred” persons, and the suspension of the blessing of sacramentals by placing of hands. 

Retreats and workshops have also been suspended.

Regarding Easter celebrations, the Southern Africa Prelates have advised, “Safe alternatives must be considered for the Triduum Rituals e.g. the washing of the feet, Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night, etc.”

The statement also reiterates previous guidelines concerning liturgical celebrations, which include the suspension of the reception of the Precious Blood by concelebrants and the congregation, reception of the Holy Communion on the hand instead of the tongue, and the suspension of the sign of peace by a handshake or hug.

Other guidelines include the draining of Holy Water fonts at the entrance of Church, hygiene observance by the clergy and extraordinary Ministers of the Holy Eucharist, and frequent handwashing by all.

According to the Bishops, the “drastic measures” offer an opportunity for Christians in the region to renew their “appreciation of the value of Prayer at Home and in private.” 

“This (private prayer) has as we know a particular relevance in Lent where we are encouraged ‘when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret, will repay you (Matt 6: 6),” the Bishops explain. 

They add, “We are encouraged to read our Bibles and to hold Services of the Word; we are able to be in ‘spiritual communion’ with our Lord in the Eucharist and in our Neighbour.”

Meanwhile, in a bid to forestall the spread of COVID-19, the government South Africa is expected to revoke nearly 10,000 visas issued this year to citizens of China and Iran. Visas will henceforth be required for other high-risk countries, which previously had been visa-free, including Italy and the United States.

With 61 cases of Covid-19 confirmed, the country has the highest number of infections in Sub-Saharan and the second highest in Africa, after Egypt’s 110 confirmed cases. Algeria comes third with 48 cases.

Other African countries have reported single figure cases, with Liberia, Tanzania and Somalia reporting their first cases of COVID-19 Monday, March 16.

With at least 27 countries having recorded some 347 cases of the deadly COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, and nine deaths across three countries in Africa – four in Algeria, four in Egypt, and one Morocco – the continent has comparatively fewer cases than the rest of the world. Egypt, South Africa, Algeria and Morocco account for well over half of the COVID-19 confirmed cases on the continent.


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]