25 June 2020, The Tablet

Church reopening could be 'unsustainable'

Church reopening could be 'unsustainable'

Belfast's oldest Catholic Church, St Mary's in Chapel Lane.
Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

The Catholic Church in Ireland has warned that a government-imposed cap on the number of people allowed to attend public worship could make it unsustainable for some churches to resume Mass.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin called on the Irish government to review its “blanket restriction” limiting participation to 50 people, calling instead for the numbers to be “proportionate to the size of each church”.

He said it seemed “strange” that a church with a capacity of 1,500, scrupulously prepared for social distancing, would only be allowed to have 50 people present, while there are “large retail outlets brim- ming with people”.

Bishop Kevin Doran suggested that the Taoiseach’s announcement has given rise to “confusion and concern”. The Bishop of Elphin said the cap makes “absolutely no sense where churches are concerned as it is not even remotely based on physical distance”.

Our Lady of Victories on Ballymun Road in Dublin could seat 1,700 people prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. “After many weeks of planning, coordinating and observing all protocols,” parish priest Fr Frank Reburn tweeted, it was now ready to seat 280 people with social distancing. However, under the latest guidelines, he can only welcome back 50 when the church reopens.

Another parish priest, Fr Aquinas T Duffy, told The Tablet he had been shocked by the limit and called for better communication between the Irish episcopal conference and the Department of Health. His own parish church in Cabinteely, Co. Dublin, can hold 70 people with social distancing in place. “We had been preparing for reopening. That is going to be challenging but we cannot work with the limit of 50.”

Fr Duffy said his parish had planned to open for weekdays and Sundays after 29 June. “But now we will only open for the weekdays and continue with the online Masses for the Sundays until the end of July.”

In Clonmel, Fr Michael Toomey said Friday’s announcement meant that all the preparations done in churches to safely accommodate people would now have to be revisited.

With social distancing, he said, “many churches can hold up to 150, others less than 50”. He warned that a “blanket” number would cause “huge challenges, especially at funerals”.

Fr Toomey said: “If this is not reviewed it will be a logistical challenge and I wonder if we should reopen for Mass now on 29 June?” 

A spokesman for the Taoiseach said the government would revisit the cap with expert guidance.

Separately, the Association of Catholic Priests has warned that there is “widespread unhappiness”, unease and anger among priests that they are being “manipulated, and in some cases effectively being bullied, into organising and ‘carrying the can’ for the reintroduction of public Masses and for whatever fall-out emerges in time.”

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