Documents obtained by The Irish Catholic this week offer something of a glimpse behind the scenes on the relationship between the Church and the State since Covid-19 restrictions began back in March. Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has been the key go-between on behalf of the hierarchy. His years in the Vatican’s diplomatic service has given him an aplomb in presenting his point of view in a language and manner that speaks to bureaucrats and government officials.
Dr Martin emerges as a trusted voice in many of the discussions released under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. His contributions – particularly on the need to care for those bereaved during the crisis – show a keen sense of the long-term effects of the pandemic, particularly the loss of life.
At an online meeting with the Department of the Taoiseach on March 30 on funeral arrangements in the light of restrictions, for example, he insisted that families need guidelines so that they know what to expect when a loved one dies. He also pointed to the need to ensure consistency with the approach in the North.
At a subsequent meeting on April 14, the archbishop was also strong in what he described as the “harshness” of people seeing relatives brought to hospital or intensive care units and “then never seeing them again”.
This elicited a response from the Health Service Executive (HSE) confirming that when a patient was unlikely to survive, every effort was made to ensure family could be present.
At the same meeting, the archbishop also voiced concerns about healthy residents in nursing homes living in loneliness and fear. Again, the HSE pledged to work on alleviating this.
On April 30, returning to the issue of funerals Dr Martin raised concerns with the Department of the Taoiseach about reports of commercial entities charging very high prices for filming or transmitting funeral Masses.
The documents reveal the archbishop’s acute appreciation of the need to put health and public safety concerns at the top of the agenda. At the same time, it is clear that he had no reticence about pointing to other countries such as Germany and Italy where Masses had re-commenced in a safe and physically-distant way.
At a meeting on May 7 – the same day he sent a note to the Taoiseach about growing dissatisfactions among Catholics – the minutes record that the archbishop “outlined that there is growing pressure to open churches [for public worship] earlier than indicated in the roadmap and pointed to moves in other countries, particularly Italy referring to recent guidelines issued there”.
Parish planning, he noted, is ‘well underway’ and included many of the policies that were later adopted by the hierarchy”
It was later that afternoon that he wrote to the Taoiseach requesting a meeting between Church leaders and the Government to talk about an earlier re-opening for Mass. That meeting took place a week later and led to Government officials privately conceding that there could be more flexibility in terms of religious ceremonies.
At the same time, Dr Martin distributed to Government officials some observations he had made on how the Church in other countries was operating in a safe fashion. This included the necessary physical distancing, as well as rigorous hygiene standards. Parish planning, he noted, is “well underway” and included many of the policies that were later adopted by the hierarchy.
At no point in any of the documents seen by The Irish Catholic was there talk of limiting the number of people at Mass to 50 as was eventually announced by the Taoiseach at the weekend. That announcement (shift?) led to a frank statement on Saturday morning where Dr Martin described the restriction as both “strange and disappointing” given how large many churches are.
Dr Martin has shown strong leadership on this issue and deserves much credit for calmly and resolutely putting the case to the State for a return to public Masses as other parts of society began to open up, and for being a voice for those most affected by this pandemic.