The Irish bishops have urged the faithful to “keep Christ at the centre of Christmas” while cautioning that it will not be possible for the usual large congregations to assemble for Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day this year.
In an Advent message, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference highlighted that Christmas Masses will be widely available via parish webcams and they said they “strongly encourage” families to tune in from the “domestic churches” of their living rooms and join those gathered in their local church in celebrating Christmas.
They reminded the faithful that the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days remains suspended during the pandemic.
Addressing priests’ concerns about having to turn people away from Christmas services due to the cap on numbers allowed to attend public worship, the hierarchy emphasised: “Christmas is about more than just one day”.
They reminded families that they are welcome to attend Mass at some point during the twelve days from Christmas Eve to the Epiphany on 6 January and they also invited families or “household bubbles” to pay a visit to their local church at some time during the twelve days to offer a Christmas prayer at the crib and pray together for their families and for those particularly impacted by the pandemic.
“It is possible to experience the spiritual richness of this special season in many ways. Our homes can become ‘little churches’ where we invite the Christ-child in. The age-old tradition of having a Christmas crib in the home and gathering there as a family to pray or to sing a carol will be especially meaningful this year.”
Recognising that many people traditionally go to confession at this time of the year, the bishops said that while it may not be possible for all to safely avail of the sacrament, the faithful could “confidently place their trust in God’s mercy through an Act of Perfect Contrition”.
They thanked priests and parish pastoral councils, as well as stewards and cleaners, for the work they are doing at local level to ensure that Christmas is celebrated in a safe manner. “Their task, as Christmas approaches, will not be easy, and we appeal to all the faithful to cooperate fully with them.”
Responding to the lifting of restrictions on public worship, the Association of Catholic Priests said it created “particular difficulties” for priests and Parish Pastoral Councils in organising Masses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
In a statement last Friday, the Association said it was “an open secret that there is huge concern if not alarm in parishes regarding how the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses can be organised and the need for caution in delivering a safe and manageable outcome”.
The group warned that priests and parish councils “are being placed under undue and unfair pressure to multiply Masses, to organise a ticket allocation system, to agree unrealistic and dangerously inappropriate measures to sanitise church buildings, and to recruit unrealistic numbers of volunteers”.
It said that every parish is different in terms of priest numbers, size of churches and the resources available to effectively steward, sanitise and oversee the relevant protocols such as social distancing and mask-wearing in order to ensure that people worship in safety.
The one thing all parishes have in common is that “huge numbers of people – way beyond the number at typical weekend Masses – traditionally gather in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” the ACP said as the group highlighted the fears that arrangements will be overwhelmed by numbers gathering both inside and outside the church this year, creating a dangerous and unmanageable situation.
According to the ACP, the worry among priests is that their particular church and parish may be the scene of a cluster of Covid cases with “devastating” consequences.
“In present circumstances we need to err on the side of caution and wisdom,” the priests’ group appealed.