Brendan Hoban: Reopening churches is not the wisest move…

Reopening churches is not the wisest move      

Western People 8.12.2020

As I write I’m aware that those who read these words will know if Mayo will be playing in the All-Ireland final on Sunday week, the last Sunday before Christmas. Or if Tipperary has somehow usurped the divine right of Mayo (after Dublin) to make Croke Park, our second home.

But no matter how often Mayo has graced the hallowed grounds of the GAA in the last decade, it’s hard to get our heads around the stunning truth that, in the All-Ireland campaign of 2020, Mayo played in the All-Ireland semi-final (and possibly final) in December of that year. (A pointless question for pub quizzes in 2040, because everyone will know the answer.)

No matter how you look at it or what kind of ‘normal’ it is, there’s nothing normal about Mayo (hopefully) playing in All Ireland final on the Sunday before Christmas Day. But there it is. We live in the strangest of strange times.

Just as abnormal as playing an All-Ireland final on the Sunday before Christmas Day is the prospect of a small scattering of people attending the vigil Mass on Christmas night.

At a time when church and religious practice have received a walloping in Ireland, the ‘Midnight’ Mass at Christmas was one of the few unchanging realities of Irish life.

Where the requirement for Catholics of attending a weekend Mass is now, as Hamlet might say, ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’, Midnight Mass is invariably choc-a-block, full to the rafters (as we say) of Catholics, former Catholics, nominal Catholics, once-a-year Catholics, Catholics who are not quite sure if they’re Catholics, a few Protestant refugees as well as a sprinkling of agnostics, atheists and those simply honouring (for Granny’s sake) a social and family ritual.

In one of the parishes I worked in, what struck me most about it was the way people routinely gathered for weekend Masses in the last five minutes. They had it down to a fine art. Five minutes before Mass there was hardly anyone in the church but when I rang the little bell to indicate I was on my way to the altar, most of them had managed to shuffle into the seats at the last minute.

While I found it difficult in many ways, I avoided bringing their attention to it for obvious reasons. However, invariably on Christmas night, that unusual community practice received its come-uppance. When the usual Catholic worshippers arrived as usual at the last minute they discovered that the church was full of nominal Catholics, once-a-year Catholics, etc.

Some of the regulars might manage to squeeze into the back of the church but most had to make do with a distant presence in the car-park. They weren’t, as you might expect, ‘happy campers’!

This year, as everyone keeps telling us, it will be a different Christmas, as the ‘new normal’ clicks in. The reality is that most Catholics listed above took it for granted that, despite their varied levels of faith or cultural allegiances, at Christmas time (unlike Holy Week and Easter, more significant Christian feasts) some kind of deference to God was imperative. For some a Christmas Confession or for most at least a Christmas Mass.

But this year the reality is that, under government regulations, a tiny percentage of Catholics will be able to attend a Christmas Mass. Churches can only admit 50 or extra groupings of 50 in large churches that can accommodate self-contained ‘pods’ with separate entrances and exits. Masses can only last one hour from the first entrance to the last exit (so sermons will have to be short!) and the usual rules about social distancing, sanitising, etc will apply.

Not for the first time it strikes me, from what I sense most priests and many Catholics are saying, that we would be as well off not to have these limited Masses at all because apart from their token value for the few, it would be better for the many if families were encouraged to gather in homes and follow a streamed Mass on the webcam or on television. It would be fairer, more doable, more manageable than trying to regulate an artificial liturgy for a scattered few in an almost empty church. That’s, of course, if those trying to get in – and who swamp the public health protocols and put at risk their own health and the health of others – can be kept outside. Or worst of all to have priests running around churches multiplying Masses in an effort to provide a limited form of worship for a limited few.

It always surprises me when people who are serious church-goers seem so adverse (in respect to limiting public Masses) to doing what we Christians are expected to do – to make sacrifices for others. Surely church-goers of all groups need to give good example to others, not least (as NPHET keeps reminding us) to make sacrifices so that life is protected and that as many as possible are kept safe and kept alive.

Can we really expect the young (who are champing at the bit) to socialize responsibly after a second difficult lockdown if their elders are unprepared to make the sacrifice of not having Mass this Christmas?

Yes, many would miss it. Many more think it unfair even to ask them. But it makes sense at a lot of levels. It’s not permanent. It’s manageable. It would be a telling symbolic selfless gesture of sacrifice for the sake of others (and ourselves). And, whisper it, it would be a pro-life statement, reminding us (as Pope Francis continues to do) that pro-life is not a slogan for being against abortion but a broad statement of respect for all life.

Copies of my new book, ‘A Priest’s Diary’, are now available at €15 from all local bookshops or online from




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