When the current pandemic broke out earlier this year, very few of us imagined that we would still be living with many restrictions months later as we prepare for Christmas.
The current Level 5 restrictions have had very serious effects on our ability to carry out normal liturgical life in the Archdiocese of Dublin. This follows on similar restrictions that had earlier affected those parts of the diocese in counties Kildare and Laois and then in County Dublin.
The indications are that these measures are having some effect on controlling the spread of the virus, but this is not yet the case in some parts of county Dublin. It is vital that everyone takes his or her responsibilities seriously and that we work together in curbing the virus. None of us is to second-guess the severity of the situation. None of us is authorised to self-exempt from the public norms. None of us is authorised to place people’s health at risk.
Whereas it is expected that measures will be relaxed in the first weeks of December, it is not to be excluded that restrictive measures may have to be imposed again after Christmas. It is likely and indeed understandable that the numbers of those who will be permitted to attend religious services over the Christmas period will be restricted. Many will wish to attend Christmas Mass, though the numbers may not be huge. Many people will still be anxious about attending any large gathering of people.
I notice in some United States dioceses that it is being suggested that a greater number of Masses be celebrated on Christmas Day. This would require ensuring that Churches can be sanitised, numbers of those attending be monitored, and that sufficient time be allotted between each celebration. In order to avoid people having to be turned away from Churches, the idea of some form of advanced booking might be proposed. People might be encouraged to attend Mass on different days during Christmas week. These are just suggestions from the US.
We should also be looking at other possibilities. I believe that we could encourage families with their children to visit the Christmas crib for private prayer. Each parish could provide some short prayer that could be recited on the occasion. To foster an authentic Christian culture of Christmas, in addition to online Masses, parishes could provide online ceremonies of Christmas music and readings. These could include celebrations for and by children, while respecting current restrictions. We could consider a simple parish Christmas greeting, to be delivered to families.
The traditional RDS Christmas Day lunch for the homeless which has been held for many years by the Knights of Saint Columbanus, cannot be held this year, but a number of central distribution points will provide take-away food for the homeless on Christmas Day. Parishes might be able to provide some services to reach out to the homeless and the lonely on Christmas Day. The Capuchin Day Centre has continued to provide food on a take-away basis right throughout the lockdown, even using the Church building as a possible place for the homeless to sit and eat their food.
In situations of a sharp rise in the numbers contracting the virus, the limitation of public worship can be justified. This has been reasserted in these days in Great Britain and by French Courts. This restriction however should be limited to the shortest period necessary. The effort of our parishes to prepare our Church buildings and to supervise attendance has been extraordinary and the level of risk in our Churches is very low. However in addition to attendance at Mass, the questions of the movement of people and the maintenance of social distancing on arrival and departure and the presence of a high proportion of vulnerable people at Mass are considerations that the public health authorities cannot ignore.
The four Archbishops have made representation to the Taoiseach regarding reopening Churches for public worship at the earliest opportunity. While being sympathetic to our request, the Taoiseach did not feel in a position make any definitive commitment at this moment.
It is interesting to note that Pope Francis has ceased holding his weekly General Audience in public and has noted that his Christmas liturgies will be celebrated with very limited public attendance.
One way or another, for the foreseeable future public participation at Masses will remain limited. This is the situation in which we will have to live and carry out ministry for the coming months and possibly even longer. As I said recently, while attendance at public worship is suspended, the Christian life is not suspended. The life of the Church must go on and must go on with renewed vigour. Our wounded society needs the witness of authentically lived Christian lives. We have to be creative in finding new ways of reaching out especially to young families.
Over the next few days, I hope to be able to open a dialogue on how we may be able to proceed and I would appreciate receiving your suggestions. The Sacraments Implementation Group, established by the Council of Priests, has provided me with feedback from their Deanery Consultations with some recommendations about how we should prepare for the celebration of the First Holy Communion and Confirmation next year. I will forward these to you soon.
I know that the current situation has challenged each one of us in our ministry and indeed in our own lives. We need to intensify our sense of common purpose and a pastoral response to a situation we had never foreseen. Let us remember each other in our prayers.
November 9th 2020