LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland’s two Catholic primates have issued statements on the path to the resumption of public Masses on the Emerald Isle, both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and Primate of Ireland said the Church needs “to move beyond the virtual,” even as he praised how parishes have been “working creatively in reaching out during this complex lockdown situation.”
“There is a clear recognition by believers and indeed many non-believers alike that in the process of healing and grieving, as we journey through these difficult times, faith and spiritual experience constitute an important contribution in sustaining people’s personal and mental wellbeing,” he said. “As Christians, we suffer through not being able to celebrate our faith through public worship.”
The Dublin archbishop said he experienced the “void in a deep way,” and noted the “longing by believers to be able to return to public worship and towards building up Christian communities.”
On May 1, the Irish government published a roadmap to reopening the country after two months of lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The plan includes five phases, which began on May 18. Under the plan, churches would be allowed to open for public worship during the fourth phase on July 20.
The Republic of Ireland – unlike the United Kingdom – allowed churches to remain open for private prayer during the lockdown.
“Over the past weeks, all over Ireland, parishes have begun working on plans to be ready to open their Churches as soon as it is safe to do so. I thank those Dublin parishes who responded to my request for developing a plan to be ready to open Churches at the appropriate moment, while respecting social distancing and public hygiene,” Martin said.
The Irish Bishops Conference pooled suggestions from each diocese and drew up a first Draft Framework document for reopening parish churches for Mass. The Standing Committee of the Conference examined the Framework on Tuesday and is preparing a “shorter and sharper document” with checklists for parishes.
“From the outset, the Government Roadmap has noted that it will be constantly evaluating progress in reopening society and it is important that we as Church are ready to respond to any change in the current proposed timescale,” the Dublin archbishop said.
“We have to examine how our desires can be measured within the overall public health situation. It is not that we place public health measures above our spiritual mission,” he continued, before noting that Pope Francis called on Italians to respect the norms the government established to safeguard public health when churches reopened in Italy.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the Primate of All Ireland, sent a Pentecost message to his clergy and religious noting that he was “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.”
Armagh is in Northern Ireland, which recently became the first part of the United Kingdom to allow churches to be opened for private prayer.
The Northern Ireland Executive also published a five-stage plan for reopening the country, although it didn’t provide a timeline. Public worship would be allowed in stage four.
“I want to thank you for the work you are doing at local level to plan for the full ‘re-opening’ of parish life and worship. Please 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,” the Armagh archbishop wrote.
Speaking about Draft Framework from the Irish bishops’ conference, he said it will offer guidance on a number of important liturgical issues, including the distribution and reception of Holy Communion; advice for concelebrants, deacons, altar servers; and best practice for extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and others who assist at Mass.
“At the forthcoming Episcopal Conference meeting in early June 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 said.
The Republic of Ireland has had 24,735 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, with 1,615 deaths. Northern Ireland has had 4,637 confirmed cases with 514 deaths. On Monday, the Republic of Ireland had its first day with no recorded COVID-19 deaths since the country went into lockdown; on Tuesday, Northern Ireland had its first day without a death.
Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “Let’s keep working together to have more days like this.”
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