French faithful flash car hazard lights for communion at post-lockdown mass

Dominique CHARTON
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Some 500 believers gathered in Chalons-en-Champagne in about 200 cars parked at least a metre (3.3 feet) from one another outside the city's main exhibition hall

Some 500 believers gathered in Chalons-en-Champagne in about 200 cars parked at least a metre (3.3 feet) from one another outside the city's main exhibition hall (AFP Photo/FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI)

Châlons-en-Champagne (France) (AFP) - Catholics in France's virus hit east on Sunday gathered for their first mass in weeks, praying and singing hymns from the relative safety of their cars.

Some 500 believers gathered in Chalons-en-Champagne in about 200 cars parked at least a metre (3.3 feet) from one another outside the city's main exhibition hall.

"It is a triumph of life," bishop Francois Touvet told AFP, adding that the initiative was a first for France and went ahead only after the authorities gave special permission.

It was held on the seventh day of a progressive easing of France's strict lockdown instituted in mid-March to brake the spread of the virus which has killed more than 27,000 people in France.

Under new, looser regulations, people are allowed to leave their homes and travel up to 100 kilometres (60 miles).

But gatherings of more than 10 people remain prohibited as the country seeks to progressively get back to normal without unleashing a new infection wave.

At Sunday's service in eastern France, hard hit by coronavirus, strict rules applied.

Cars were checked at the entrance to ensure each occupant was wearing a mask and had access to virus-killing hand gel.

No more than four people were allowed per car, and no-one was allowed to get out.

At the front of the car park, a pulpit complete with a cross and a statue of the Virgin Mary had been erected on a truck trailer, from where Touvet delivered his sermon over a microphone.

At the foot of the stage, a dozen priests and deacons sat arranged in a semi-circle, their chairs carefully spaced a safe distance from each other.

Worshippers who wished to receive communion were asked to switch on their car's hazard lights, and to clean their hands with sanitising gel.

Priests wearing face masks, their hands also disinfected, then went around from car to car.

"Clean hands give the communion, clean hands receive it," said Touvet. "An exceptional measure for an exceptional situation."

For Marie-Lorene, a 21-year-old resident of Chalons-en-Champagne, the mass was an opportunity to pray "for all those who have died of coronavirus for all those who fight against coronavirus and then for all the people who help the sick".

Touvet told the faithful they would celebrate Pentecost together at the end of the month, either in church, "or here again", to worship "in this world wounded and overwhelmed by a small, invisible virus".