08 August 2021, The Tablet

Irish church Covid bans could be lifted next month

Irish church Covid bans could be lifted next month

The Government’s announcement on the sacraments follows a revolt by up to seven bishops against the ongoing ban.
Sergio Azenha / Alamy

The Irish Government has said it hopes that Communions and Confirmations, which are currently banned under Covid health guidelines, may been allowed to proceed again in September.

In a statement yesterday, it said the Cabinet had agreed the move but underlined that the final decision would depend on the public health situation at the time.

Ireland has seen a significant rise in Covid cases due to the Delta variant and is ramping up vaccinations for young people in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. 

The Government’s announcement on the sacraments follows a revolt by up to seven bishops against the ongoing ban, with many parishes facing a backlog of Communions and Confirmations, some of which were postponed during the first lockdown.

On Saturday, Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin, who last week wrote to priests in his diocese indicating that they could proceed with the sacraments and noting that the current ban is seen by many as “discriminatory”, said the Church has fully supported measures to protect health and welfare.

At a Mass for his investiture with the pallium at St Mary’s Pro Cathedral in Dublin, Archbishop Farrell said: “We have encouraged the faithful to see recent restrictions on public worship as a form of self-sacrifice, enabling them to perform a Christian service.”

Encouraging those who are eligible to be vaccinated for their own good and to help to protect others, the Archbishop of Dublin also urged everyone to be responsible in how they behave outside churches, by complying with guidelines regarding socialising between households.

In his homily he underlined that it had been “a source of deep frustration” for many families and parish communities that for so many months they have been unable to celebrate the Sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation.   

“They have been perplexed, as am I, that of all of the types of events which might give rise to mingling between households, it is uniquely these Sacraments which are prohibited under public guidelines.”

He also said that in all other aspects of life, whether family celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries, or fans gathering to watch sporting events, or after weddings and funerals, people are trusted and expected to observe the guidelines on household mixing. 

“Households are permitted to mix, in homes and in restaurants, in ways that take account of the age and vaccination status of those present. I find it difficult to explain, or justify, that it is only parents of children receiving the sacraments who cannot be trusted to observe these guidelines,” Archbishop Farrell stated. 

Elsewhere, Bishop Denis Nulty said Communions and Confirmations should not go ahead in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighin.

In a statement published on the diocesan website, Bishop Nulty said: “We have done so much as individuals, as parishes, as communities, as counties and as a country. Better days are, we all feel, within touching distance. In this context, and in a recognition of the great sacrifice we have all already undertaken, I am asking parishes to continue to abide by current official guidelines.”

Meanwhile Bishop Fintan Monahan of Killaloe said he thought the sacraments had been “singled out” for restrictions.

In a statement to Tipp FM, he said that the fears surrounding Communion and Confirmation after-parties were “overplayed” and that it was safer to hold the sacraments at this time of year when you can have the possibility of outdoor gatherings which may not be as possible in September or October.

Priests and bishops are divided over whether to recommence Communions and Confirmations.

In his blog, Fr Tony Flannery argued that parishes should not hold the sacraments until the public health guidelines permitted them.

“The present way of celebrating First Communion and Confirmation leaves a lot to be desired. The large majority of the parents of today’s candidates for these sacraments are not committed to the Catholic faith, or to attendance at church. And the celebration of the sacraments is often followed by a major social event, and the collection of substantial amounts of money by the young person. I think it is fair to say that the spiritual dimension of these events is minuscule, or non-existent, for most of those who take part. This only serves to trivialise, even demean, the sacraments,” the Redemptorist priest said.

“If I was a bishop, I definitely would not be fighting with the Government for the right to perform these ceremonies. I would be glad to see them abolished and replaced by a preparation done in the parish and family, which would involve only those who really believed.”

He added that this was especially true of the sacrament of Confirmation. “That sacrament is meant to be the occasion on which a person, having reached the stage in life when they can make personal decisions, would commit themselves to living the Christian life. How could anyone say that what happens in our churches at a confirmation ceremony with a class of eleven and twelve-year-olds bears any semblance of that? It doesn’t,” he criticised.

In Clonmel, parish priest Fr Michael Toomey expressed frustration over the ongoing ban on Communions and Confirmations. Bishop Phonsie Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore, in whose diocese he serves, has given the green light to the resumption of the sacraments.

Writing to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin to express his frustration over the treatment of the Church on this issue, Fr Toomey explained that in the four churches that make up his Co Tipperary parish the Confirmation ceremony will be confined strictly to the Confirmation Candidate, their sponsor and two other people – a total of four.

In a letter seen by The Tablet, he said: “They will sit in their own space with no one in front or behind them, all socially distanced in different pods of no more than 50, wearing masks, and many of the ceremonies taking place without of Mass, so that there is no moving around for Communion.” He said similar plans are in place for First Holy Communions.

Many parents can see the logic of such careful plans being given the green light by bishops when everything else seems to be allowed to open up.

Archbishop Farrell told RTE’s News at One: “I’m looking at some everyday gatherings in bars, restaurants around the country, Croke Park at the weekend, concerts; I heard discussed last night 70,000 people attending Electric Picnic. Weddings, anniversaries birthday parties. That a parent cannot take their child along to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, that is simply not credible.”

He reiterated his criticism on Saturday, in the presence of the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Jude Okolo, saying he understood “the frustration and the resentment of those who feel that the public guidelines are unfair and discriminatory”.

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