Closed Churches

Closed churches, Western People, 16.3.2020

There’s a bit of advice that’s offered in a confusing and complicated world – ‘Trust in science, do what you’re told and leave the rest in God’s hands’.
In a world where no one is expert enough to know everything the real experts are the scientists.

In this opinionated age, we all have opinions, but often they’re not worth the breath they take to express them. Because most of the time we don’t know. And when we don’t know or can’t know what to do, as with the corona virus, a respectful silence is probably the best option. It’s a time, if ever there was a time, when what the experts say has to be heard and acted upon.

There are indications, for example, that those who don’t know how little they know will insist on doing their own thing. Priests and lay Ministers distributing Communion at Mass are coming up against one ‘religious’ example of that problem.

The medical evidence is overwhelming that distributing Communion on the tongue is, in present circumstances, irresponsible and endangers the life of the person who receives and of all the other people in the queue. Yet, a small minority of people whose preference is for receiving Communion on the tongue, are refusing to receive on the hand, with a few creating a stand-off in an effort to bully the priest or lay minister into getting their own way.

There are many words that might describe that attitude, some of them unmentionable in this context, but ‘selfishess’; and ‘obsession’ are the mildest of  mild versions. As the churches have discovered, sometimes the pious – who will inherit the earth – are not a sure guide to what is reasonable and sensible in a crisis.

The announcement by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in America on Thursday has brought a much-needed reality check to the seriousness of the situation we’re in. In a nut-shell, while infections with the corona virus that could be connected with China or Italy were manageable, albeit with difficulty, those that had their source ‘in the community’ set alarm bells ringing. Because ‘in the community’ can be more accurately described as ‘we’ve no idea where the virus came from’. In other words, we have to take stringent action to ensure that contact between those who have the virus and those in danger of getting it has to be limited in every way possible. Or things will get out of hand.

This will be extremely difficult to achieve and will demand a level of social coherence beyond anything we’ve experienced as a country so far. Effectively, the challenge is not just to be responsible citizens but, as Christians, to play our part in proactively protecting those most vulnerable in our society.

A  concerted local and national campaign needs to be put in place to support those who need to ‘self-isolate’ so that they can do so most effectively. As with times when a heavy snow-fall confines the elderly and those at risk to their homes, support systems need to be put in place by those who are in a position to help those at risk.

A primary focus is on ‘social distancing’ keeping away from one another because we don’t know who’s carrying the virus – ourselves or those we encounter – and limiting social contact to the bare necessities.

The other standards laid down by the government – no meeting of more than 100 people to take place indoors and no meeting of 500-plus to take place outdoors – probably don’t need to be rigidly enforced because most sensible people will avoid such gatherings as toxic settings for contracting the virus.

In the standards laid down by the bishops to complement the plus-100 indoor meetings banned by the government, two points are critical.  One is the general consensus among dioceses in the west that public Masses are to be cancelled for the next few weeks including Sunday 29th. And the other key decision is that the obligation to be present at Mass on Sundays and Holydays is suspended until further notice.

This will take a lot of pressure off the elderly in particular, the group of Catholics most vulnerable to getting the Corona virus, whose loyalty to attending weekend Mass sometimes bordered on the scrupulous. If there were any public Masses anywhere their instinctive impulse would be to travel any distance to fulfil what they regard as an indispensable obligation. So the bishops have lifted that burden from their shoulders by effectively encouraging them to self-care in the comfort of their own homes until the crisis eases.

Regulations regarding funerals and weddings are more difficult to organise. Both will come under the civil regulation of less than the 100 limit of church attendees. So the details will have to be worked out with the priest in terms of access to the church, what form that will take, how a space of one metre between attendees can be organised and how those not in the church can sympathise with the bereaved. It will take good-will and patience to arrive at a workable solution.

As I write, a clear pattern is emerging. While Dublin and others dioceses seem to be opting for retaining some Masses under the 100 person limit, the dioceses of the west are opting for the cancellation of all public Masses – on Sundays, weekdays and Holydays – up to and including March 29th. And everyone dispensed from the traditional obligation.


UPDATE – Editor ACP Website

Since Brendan wrote his article there have been some changes in a fast changing situation.

A cursory look at diocesan websites on 17 March reveals the following situation for the dioceses in Ireland.

Achonry                                   All Public Masses suspended

Ardagh and Clonmacnoise   All Public Masses suspended

Armagh                                    All Public Masses suspended

Cashel & Emly                         All Public Masses suspended

Clogher                                    All are dispensed from the obligation to physically attend Sunday Mass. Where normal attendance at Mass on Sundays or weekdays is less than 100, there is no reason not to celebrate a public Mass.

Clonfert                                    All Public Masses suspended

Cloyne                                      All Public Masses suspended

Cork & Ross                             All Public Masses suspended

Derry                                        All Public Masses suspended

Down & Connor                      From 18 March, All Public Masses suspended

Dromore                                  All Public Masses suspended

Dublin                                      If it would not be possible to limit attendance at Mass to 100 people, then Masses should be suspended. It is necessary that people observe a distance of at least one metre from each other.

Elphin                                      All Public Masses suspended

Ferns                                        All are dispensed from the obligation to physically attend Sunday Mass. Sunday Public Masses can proceed as scheduled for congregations of up to 100.

Galway & Kilmacduagh        All Public Masses suspended

Kerry                                        All Public Masses suspended

Kildare & Leighlin                   All Public Masses suspended

Killala                                       All Public Masses suspended

Killaloe                                     All Public Masses suspended

Kilmore                                    Weekend Public Masses suspended,
weekday Public Masses to continue

Limerick                                   All Public Masses suspended

Meath                                       All Public Masses suspended

Ossory                                      All Public Masses suspended

Raphoe                                     All Public Masses suspended

Tuam                                        All Public Masses suspended

Waterford & Lismore             All Public Masses suspended


Where all public Masses are suspended many bishops referred to the fact that it is simply not possible to guarantee a congregation of less than 100 people.





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