LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Irish Catholic leaders met with the Republic of Ireland’s prime minister on Wednesday evening to discuss the latest anti-COVID-19 measures, which have suspended public worship in the country.

Prime Minister Micheál Martin put Ireland into “Level 5” beginning the same evening, meaning the country is almost back into the same lockdown it experienced in the Spring at the beginning of the pandemic, although schools will remain open.

Churches have been closed to public worship since Oct. 7, when the country went into “Level 3.”

The Republic of Ireland will be at “level 5” for six weeks, although the decision will be reviewed after four weeks.

During his meeting with the five Catholic leaders – Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly and Bishop Dermot Farrell – the prime minister thanked them for their support and acknowledged the major role that religious leaders have in supporting people and giving hope in a time of stress and worry, and especially for reaching out to those who may feel isolated or marginalized.

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According to a statement released after the meeting, discussion focused mainly on the effects which the current COVID-19 restrictions are having on the health and well-being of the faith community and the great desire to return to worship as soon as possible.

“The archbishops emphasized that they are fully supportive of the public health messages but highlighted that the coming together in prayer and worship, especially for Mass and the Sacraments, is fundamental to Christian tradition and a source of nourishment for the life and well-being of whole communities,” the statement said, adding that the importance of gathering for worship as a source of consolation and hope at Christmas time was stressed.

During the meeting, the Catholic leaders highlighted “the mammoth effort” that has been made by priests and volunteers at parish level to ensure that gatherings in churches are as safe as possible during the pandemic.

“It was acknowledged that pastoral work continues at parish level even as the celebration of Mass is moved on-line. The challenges of those suffering bereavement at this time were acknowledged, particularly as we enter the traditional time of remembrance in the month of November,” the statement said.

During the meeting, Martin outlined the reasoning behind the government’s strategy and “the need to strike the right balance between all forms of social and economic activity and public health.”

The statement said the Catholic leaders emphasized the need to protect the most vulnerable in society and spoke of the “positive value” of keeping schools open.

Irish Church leaders have been largely supportive of government efforts to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, and for the most part haven’t protested the ban on public worship.

However, Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns called on the government to revisit the decision to ban public worship, noting that no other country in Europe has made the same move.

“Churches are very safe places. A great deal of money and time and effort was spent getting churches ready – sanitizing the spaces and all of that – and it’s a bit disappointing that the churches were close so soon,” he told South East Radio.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome