After 107 days, I was overwhelmed to be able to attend Mass on Monday [pictured]. The joy was palpable after the long Lent and Eucharistic famine we have been living. Coronavirus is still very much with us, and we must continue to approach the Celebration of the Eucharist with caution. I’m also conscious of the Catholics who still feel too vulnerable to return to the public celebration of the sacraments, but Monday, June 29 was a day of great joy in parishes all across the country (see Pages 8-13).
Lockdown has caused us to reflect deeply on our model of the Church. It has also shone a light on some of the systemic weaknesses in the Church in Ireland both theological and practical.
For example, I have seen many people say that the celebration of Mass online is just as good as being really present. Others have observed that spiritual Communion gives them a real share in the Eucharist. Neither, of course, are true. The very fact of the Mass, obviously, contributes to the sanctification of the whole world – but it is not a private spiritual practice, it is the prayer of the whole Church: the source and summit of the Christian life.
While the obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains optional due to the pandemic, the Mass can never become something that we can take or leave as the mood takes us.
On a practical level (which has real theological consequences) cocooning has given us a glimpse into the not-too-distant future. Five years from now, most of the priests who are cocooning or shielding will have left the stage. Most will be retired and we will have more-and-more priestless parishes. Clergy from other parts of the world are already filling the gaps and ensuring that our parishes continue to have regular Masses.
But, eventually Nigeria, India and Romania will need their own priests. Missionary priests will continue to play their part in the Church in Ireland, but we cannot rely on their generosity as a long-term strategy.
The bishop-elect of Kilmore Fr Martin Hayes is a man who has spent a lot of time and energy reflecting on the Church that is to come (see Page 6).
It is too soon to say what the long-term effects will be on the Church in Ireland”
This will inevitably and correctly involve co-responsibility between people and priests. In fact, some of the obvious systemic weaknesses that have been exposed by coronavirus are the direct consequence of our failure to understand and implement the call to conversion that is the Second Vatican Council. By virtue of baptism, laypeople have a responsibility for the Church.
This is not to dismiss priests to being sacramental functionaries, their role in the governance of the Church is vital – but increasingly governance will have to be exercised with laypeople taking more and more responsibility.
The role of Bishop-elect Hayes and other Church leaders is to facilitate courageous conversations about the future.
We are still in the midst of Covid-19, and it is too soon to say what the long-term effects will be on the Church in Ireland.
But what we do know is that we are fast running out of priests. Some have interpreted this as the work of the Holy Spirit. But this strikes me as bad discernment as if God would engineer a situation where many of his people cannot be nourished by the sacraments.
As we prepare for the future, prayer and work for priestly vocations must continue to be central to our thinking – but we must also listen attentively to what God is asking of us in the midst of the vocations crisis and the more common phenomenon of priestless parishes.