LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin says the Irish government’s mandate that religious services be limited to 50 people is “disappointing” and “strange.”

The Republic of Ireland is scheduled to allow public liturgies to resume on June 29 after they were suspended as part of the effort to stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Churches in the country were never closed – as they were in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom – and people have been allowed to go to church for private prayer.

Northern Ireland allowed for private prayer in churches in mid-May, and will also allow public liturgies on June 29. England opened churches to private prayer on June 15; Scotland and Wales announced they would allow churches to open for private prayer on June 22.

“Our people have shown great patience in scrupulously respecting the restrictions on attendance at public worship,” Martin said in a statement on Saturday.

“Priests and parishes have shown creativity in reaching out by online means of transmitting Mass and providing spiritual nourishment and prayer.  Our people have equally been looking forward to being able to join fully in congregational worship. This is something that is very important for their spiritual life and personal wellbeing and it is indeed effectively their right,” the archbishop said.

“It is obviously disappointing that with the reopening for public worship there is a blanket restriction to the participation of a maximum of 50 in these first weeks. You will know that I have already expressed my view that in this initial period we should be patient and to allow the new situation to settle down. I feel that this is wise, and I believe that many of our Mass-goers will themselves be cautious in attending larger gatherings of people,” he continued.

In their guidelines for the resumption of public Masses, the bishops have called on people who are unwell or belong to at-risk groups to stay at home, and have extended the suspension of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass for the time being

However, Martin said it “seems strange that in a Church with a capacity of 1,500 people which has been scrupulously fitted out for conformity with social distancing and with clear indications about movement and interaction of people within Church, that only 50 people might be present, while we all see a situation in which large retail outlets brimming with people.”

The archbishop said he hopes that it will be possible to come to “a more reasonable and responsible situation” in which numbers permitted to attend Mass could be proportionate to the size of each church.

“The numbers would not be very large. In some cases, it is not just a question of the limitation to 50 people in a large parish church, but this would effectively mean that only 50 people out of a parish of over 10,000 might be able to attend,” he explained.

Martin said that the Church will follow the public health norms, adding that it may be possible to hold additional Masses on Sundays and to continue normally with weekday Masses where numbers are not normally large.

He also commented on the sacrament of confirmation, which was delayed due to the coronavirus crisis.

“In preparing for Confirmation in this interim period, it is important to ensure that for the moment only 50 people should be present in churches, even if this means limiting the number of candidates to probably no more than ten families,” the archbishop said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Friday reiterated the government’s stance.

“Mass gatherings will be limited to 50 people indoors and 200 people outdoors until July 20. All going well, this will rise to 100 people indoors and 500 people outdoors thereafter,” he said.

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh joined his Dublin counterpart in expressing his disappointment at the decision, saying Ireland needs “to allow local decision making and flexibility.”

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