26 May 2020, The Tablet

Irish bishops in push to reopen churches

Irish bishops in push to reopen churches

Belfast's oldest Catholic Church, St Mary's in Chapel Lane, reopens after the Northern Ireland Executive announced last week that places of worship would allowed to open for solitary prayer.
Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

The Irish bishops are working on a framework document that they hope will bolster the case for an earlier resumption of public Masses while providing best practice to priests for the full reopening of churches. 

In a Pentecost message to priests and parishes in Armagh and Dromore, Archbishop Eamon Martin said the bishops hoped that the national framework document they are currently working on would guide ongoing preparations for resuming collective worship and maximise consistency across the dioceses and parishes of Ireland.

He also expressed the hope that it would “support our continuing engagement with government and public health authorities – north and south – in making a case for the early resumption of the public celebration of Mass and the Sacraments in a measured and safe way.”

Under the Irish Government’s Roadmap for reopening society, public Masses are scheduled to begin again on 20 July but increasing numbers of Catholics have expressed frustration with this, saying it is too long a wait. There is currently no date set for the resumption of public worship in Northern Ireland.

In a message to his priests and parishioners on Tuesday, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said: “As Christians, we suffer through not being able to celebrate our faith through public worship.”

He said there was “a longing” among believers to be able to return to public worship. Paying tribute to the way parishes have been “working creatively in reaching out during this complex lockdown situation,” he added:“We need to move beyond the virtual”.

According to the Archbishop of Dublin, believers and many non-believers recognise that in the process of healing and grieving in these difficult times: “Faith and spiritual experience constitute an important contribution in sustaining people’s personal and mental wellbeing.”

Noting that the Government’s Roadmap is constantly being evaluated, he hinted that the 20th July date for the resumption of public worship may be brought forward.

“It is important that we as Church are ready to respond to any change in the current proposed timescale,” he said.  

In the shadow of Armagh Cathedral, Archbishop Eamon Martin on Tuesday delivered a video message thanking diocesan clergy and religious for the work they are doing at local level to plan for the full “re-opening” of parish life and worship.

He appealed to all: “Work closely with your priests so that your parish stands ready to respond quickly when the public health authorities tell us it is safe to begin gathering together again for Mass inside our churches."

He said he found it “sad and disappointing that we have now come the whole way through the Easter season and we are still unable to gather physically for Mass and the sacraments.”

Paying tribute to the faithful for “making great sacrifices to protect life and health and to support the common good”, the Archbishop of Armagh said faith communities’ sacrifices have borne fruit with the number of Covid-19 deaths and ICU admissions continuing to decline. But he also said: “We miss meeting up as parish communities.”

The bishops, Archbishop Martin explained, are working on guidelines which will be set out in the Framework Document to offer guidance and a checklist to parish priests and Covid-19 Parish Support Teams on physical distancing and hygiene. This will help them evaluate progress made to date and guide any necessary improvements in practice within your parish.

It will also offer guidance on a number of liturgical issues such as the distribution and reception of Holy Communion; advice for concelebrants, deacons, altar servers; best practice for extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and others who assist at Mass. 

He explained that the Framework Document will be discussed at the forthcoming Episcopal Conference online meeting in early June when the bishops will consider extending the current suspension of the Sunday obligation, the Sign of Peace and use of Holy Water fonts. 

“We will also discuss the celebration of Baptism, Marriage and the Sacrament of reconciliation in the context of any ongoing restrictions,” he explained.

The desire amongst the bishops for an earlier resumption of public Masses was flagged up last week by Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin who told OceanFM Radio that 20 July was a long time away.

“I would like to think that we could go back to the public celebration of Mass and Sacraments a little bit sooner than that. But that depends on our having a plan in place that we can assure the health authorities that we have given proper consideration to all the factors that need to be considered.”

He acknowledged that to do it properly would take some weeks.

Bishop Doran also expressed the hope that the number of family members attending Funeral Masses might be increased from ten in order to allow for a “fuller participation of sisters in law, brothers in law and grandchildren”.

“It is obviously hugely difficult for people to have to say goodbye to a loved one remotely over social media without actually being able to be present. We do appreciate that, and people have been extremely good about it. My hope is that this is gradually going to ease as the virus is excluded from the community.”  

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