Churches in Ireland will reopen their doors for public worship from 10 May under the Government’s planned easing of Covid restrictions, which were announced on Thursday evening.
In his address to the nation, the Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the reopening of Irish society would see in-person church services recommence with a maximum of 50 people in attendance.
However, under the roadmap, churches have been told that Communions and Confirmations should not take place at this time. The Archbishop of Dublin recently advised his parishes to postpone the sacraments until later in the year.
Fifty people will also be permitted to attend funerals and wedding ceremonies, though just six people will be able to attend an indoor wedding reception and 15 allowed outdoors. From 7 June, 25 guests will be able to attend wedding receptions.
Public worship resumed in Northern Ireland’s churches on 26 March. However, it has been banned south of the border since 26 December following a surge in Covid cases and deaths linked to Christmas gatherings and the spread of the UK variant of the virus. The death toll in Ireland currently stands at 4,899 and totals 5,924 for the island of Ireland.
Earlier this month, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly published a statutory instrument which made it a criminal offence for a priest to allow people gather in a church for public worship or for people to leave their homes to take part in a religious service. The penalty for infringing this was a fine or six months in prison.
The move provoked a backlash from the bishops in Ireland, spearheaded by Archbishop Eamon Martin, Primate of All Ireland, who described it as draconian and hit out at the lack of consultation between the Churches, public health officials and the Government.
Businessman Declan Ganley has also been challenging the constitutionality of the ban on public worship, although his legal action has been adjourned a number of times and is not due again before the High Court until 18 May.
Responding to Thursday’s announcement of the resumption of in-person church, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, said he particularly welcomed the increase in numbers permitted to attend funerals as “this will bring enormous comfort to those grieving the loss of loved ones”.
“Since Christmas we have reached out to people in their homes and we acknowledge the tremendous work carried out by clergy and all who assist them in creating online services,” Archbishop Jackson said.
“An Taoiseach spoke this evening of finding hope for the future. In this season of Easter, a season of hope, we are thankful for the efforts of our population, from frontline and essential workers and the scientists who have worked on the creation of vaccines, to all of us who have made sacrifices to bring us to this stage of beginning to reopen society.”
Separately, the Catholic Union has welcomed the decision by the Scottish Government to remove the cap on the number of people allowed to attend religious services in Scotland.
Churches in Scotland reopened for public worship on 26 March, having been closed since the beginning of the year.
Under the return of in-person religious services, a cap of 50 people was imposed.
However, the Catholic Union and the Scottish bishops argued that the cap was “arbitrary” and that it was preventing some people being able to return to Mass.
On 26 April, new guidance from the Scottish Government lifted the cap although it remains in place for funerals and weddings in Scotland.
In England, there is no cap on the number of people able to attend religious services, although a maximum of 30 people can attend funerals and weddings. This is not due to be lifted until 21 June under the UK Government’s Covid roadmap.
In a statement, Sir Edward Leigh MP, Catholic Union President, said it was “ludicrous” that 285 people were allowed into Westminster Cathedral for a regular Mass, but that only 30 people could attend a funeral.