There has been no evidence that Church gatherings are contributing to the spread of Covid-19 infection, writes Archbishop Eamon Martin
It is only seldom, and on very important matters, that the four Catholic archbishops – of Armagh, Dublin, Tuam and Cashel & Emly – choose to seek a meeting with the Taoiseach. Given the strength of feeling over the blanket restriction, without meaningful consultation, on all public worship at level 3 of the Covid-19 ‘roadmap’, we felt it important to strongly express our views. We met the Taoiseach on Wednesday, October 28.
We assured the Taoiseach of our prayers for all those in leadership who must take difficult decisions while balancing many worthy, but competing demands.
We emphasised that parishes have been keeping worshippers safe and promoting the key messages of public health. The Church’s approach has been in tune with our consistent ethic of life and with safeguarding the common good. We continue to act in solidarity with carers, nurses and other essential workers, many of whom are active members of our congregations.
Given the uncertainty in the early days regarding the virus, we made sacrifices like everyone else. We took painful decisions to suspend public Mass during the spring lockdown. But since returning to Mass and the sacraments in late June, thanks to the efforts of thousands of parish staff, volunteers and cleaners, and careful monitoring by teams on the ground, there has been no evidence that church gatherings in Ireland are contributing to the spread of Covid-19 infection.
Of course, we understand that things must be different during this dangerous pandemic. We have limited substantially the numbers attending Mass and taken responsible decisions to modify liturgical actions so that people can gather and participate safely.
We have suspended the Sunday obligation and encouraged those who are sick or vulnerable not to put themselves at any risk by attending.
In August – before any instruction from civil authorities – the Christian Church leaders on the island of Ireland united in asking congregations to wear face coverings inside all our churches. We did this to protect the most vulnerable, support health workers, and show practical love for neighbour.
The Church has a vital role to play in sustaining hope during these difficult times. We have been encouraging our people to persevere and not to lose heart. We know that faith and prayer can be a huge support in difficult times.
We consider the health of the human person as a whole – mind, body and spirit – always keeping an eye to the transcendent and recognising that our true home is with God in heaven.
It is important that people are aware of the importance of mental and emotional well-being during the pandemic”
The Gospel is our ‘roadmap’ and source of strength for getting through the pandemic – it encourages us to practise self-denial for the greater good; it challenges us to show compassion for the isolation and anxiety of others; it makes us thankful for the blessings of health facilities, clean water, warmth and clothing, and prompts us to be generous towards those in the world who do not even have the basic necessities to withstand the spread of coronavirus.
It is important that people are aware of the importance of mental and emotional well-being during the pandemic. As people of faith, we must also nurture our spiritual health. Many people are praying more in recent months, and asking themselves important questions about the meaning of their lives, and examining their values.
The virus does not just threaten us physically, emotionally and mentally – it has the potential to shake us spiritually. But equally it can present to individuals, families, and parishes, an opportunity for conversion, spiritual re-awakening and growth.
In making the case for public worship at all stages of lockdown we are not claiming special privilege over other places – like gyms, restaurants or sports.
We are simply stating the fact that, for Christians, gathering to worship God is not an optional extra – it is a profound expression of who we are as individual spiritual beings and as Church. The communal celebration of Mass and the sacraments is an essential source of nourishment and well-being which is not only positive for individuals, but is also healthy for community resilience and for social cohesion.
Cardinal Robert Sarah expressed it powerfully when he wrote recently that we cannot live, we cannot be Christians without the Word of the Lord, without the banquet of the Eucharist, without the Christian community, without the house of the Lord, which is our home, without the Lord’s Day.
The Taoiseach has spoken of his determination that Ireland will have a “meaningful Christmas”. For Christians the true meaning of Christmas is in the celebration of the Incarnation – the Word Made Flesh Who lived among us.
Christmas without public worship would be emptied of much of its meaning. No virtual gathering over webcam can replace the joy and consolation that comes when the Church – as a family of families – is able to physically meet to welcome Christ our Saviour.
The Churches, sustained by public worship and following the example of Christ, have been continuing to play their part”
The pandemic has cruelly disrupted life during 2020. It has destroyed the dreams and livelihoods of many Irish families and has shown no mercy for the poor, the homeless, the elderly and the vulnerable.
The courage, compassion and generosity of Irish people during the pandemic – especially that of our health workers, carers, priests and others working in essential services – has been uplifting and inspiring.
The Churches, sustained by public worship and following the example of Christ, have been continuing to play their part in opening hearts and hands to respond in love to those in greatest need, at home and around the world.
I encourage all Catholics to make contact with their TDs to remind them that being separated from the sacraments and from the reception of the Eucharist is a painful absence – spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically.
In the midst of winter our country must search for light in the darkness, hope in despair, comfort in sorrow and bereavement. A return to public worship will not only be essential nourishment for Christians and people of all faiths; it will help contribute to the health and well-being of the country during this painful pandemic.