Taking a risk with life is just not an option. Western People 19.5.2020
The latest big date in the coronavirus calendar was last Monday, May 18, a key staging post in what most people believe and hope is the beginning of standing down the lockdown. The road-map was laid out with commendable clarity by an Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar in his address to the nation though the optics were all wrong in his follow-up appearance on the Late, Late Show, not least when he had to pull a piece of paper out of his pocket to check something.
Over-all, full marks for Clarity in the direct address to camera but no marks at all for Reassurance after the Late, Late debacle.
The phased re-introduction of normality has encouraged different vested interests to argue their claims to be shunted up the list of important services. Clearly concerted media campaigns by groups with commercial agendas are in train. Clearly politicians, as they do, are watching their backs. For a variety of reasons everyone from publicans to tattoo artists are claiming that their particular service to the community warrants promotion to the premier (priority) league.
Even some religious commentators are getting on the bandwagon. Is going to Mass not as important as visiting the hairdresser? Are bishops acting like glorified health and safety officers?
Thankfully the two Archbishop Martins are holding the responsible line and not trying to gain brownie points at the expense of accepting responsibility for adult decision-making. Eamon of Armagh told as much to Sean O’Rourke and Diarmuid of Dublin said the same recently. No asking for preference there!
Newspaper columnists in commenting on everything and anything do so from the safety of their laptops and sometimes regard themselves as bearing no personal responsibility for what they write, apart from satisfying their readers.
Leaders, in church and society, haven’t that luxury. While it’s easy to argue the loss of Mass (especially weekend and funeral Masses) or access to churches for those who want to pray, the important truth here is that church leaders, priests and Parish Councils have to make decisions in the context of the present pandemic and the medical and scientific evidence before them.
Here are a few unassailable truths:
(i) the virus will be present until almost all of the population of Ireland have been vaccinated, with a vaccine that has been discovered and tested.
(ii) the present emerging consensus is that Bill Gates’ efforts to find a vaccine are the most promising but the prediction is that it will take a year.
(iii) between now and then another outbreak will lead to another and possibly multiple lockdowns.
We’re at half-time but the match isn’t over.
In these circumstances, leaders in Irish society have to lead. What mustn’t happen is that particular interests are allowed to claim preference or influence in bumping their priority to the top of the queue.
Churches in particular. In the present context, gathering people together – especially elderly people who are most at risk – is grossly irresponsible and will lead to great pain, suffering and loss of life for individuals and families. Yes there’s a balance to be achieved between gradually and appropriately opening up the economy again but taking a risk when life is at stake is not an option. Nor is the specious argument of a recent commentator who suggested that ‘to live is to risk and that reducing risk to zero is not to live at all’. Clever but foolish, typewriter commentary that doesn’t have to pay its dues to the real issues.
What needs to happen in terms of public Masses and public worship, scheduled to begin on July 20, as Fr Mattie Long of Louisburgh argued so trenchantly a week ago on the Faith Alive programme on Mid-West Radio, is that we need to use the time allowed to discuss, analyse and plan a responsible approach to gathering worshippers together – what can be achieved within the guidelines of social distancing, how the health of worshippers, employees and clergy can be protected in terms of sanitising church buildings, how costs and expenditure can be managed and whether parishioners, many of whom are elderly and have taken to watching Masses on line from the comfort of their homes, are liable to attend in the numbers prior to the arrival of the coronavirus.
What doesn’t need to happen is that false parameters of a specious debate be accepted: that the Church cannot survive without Mass for an extended period (it can and it has); that praying in a Church is ‘better’ than praying at home (it isn’t); that the martyrdom complex of risking health and life itself is preferable in God’s eyes to protecting your own health and the health of those who are vulnerable (that’s nonsense).
At the moment an effort is being made by very traditional Catholic groups to insist on their ‘rights’ regardless of the implications for themselves and for others. An example is the obsession some Catholics have with receiving Communion on the tongue. They believe (wrongly) that it’s a more devout practice than receiving on the hand. They argue (rightly) that, according to liturgical regulations, they have a right to do. But what they can’t say and should not be allowed to practice in present circumstances is that such a right in normal circumstances can trump, in the midst of a pandemic, the health and safety of others. This is selfishness dressed up as piety, as Matthew 23:5 illustrates.
What needs to happen now at this ‘so far so good stage’ of dealing with this vicious pandemic is that an efficient system of testing and delivering results needs to be in place – and we’ve a bit to go to achieve that – and that has to happen if, until a vaccine arrives, we are to avoid another (or multiple) lockdowns.
Health and safety are paramount and all those who argue against that priority are, effectively, wishing a plague on all our houses.