On Tuesday evening I took part in a Zoom meeting with the Taoiseach and a group of representatives of different faiths (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, as well as Humanist) to talk about the challenges experienced by religious bodies during the current Level 5 lockdown and about expectations for the coming months.
The Taoiseach expressed his awareness of how the current Lockdown is affecting all faiths. He recognised that for believers participation in public worship is central. While the provision of online services is important at this moment, physical gathering for common worship belongs to the essence of the Christian and other faiths.
There was unanimous agreement on the part of all the faith representatives that if there is a return to Level 3 at the beginning of December, then there should be a rethink on the place of public worship in Level 3 provisions. The Taoiseach recognised that unanimity.
He noted that the public health authorities continually express their anxiety about large gatherings, but that they distinguish between controlled gatherings and spontaneous uncontrolled gatherings. The gatherings for worship are controlled and monitored and the Taoiseach stressed the enormous effort made by Churches to ensure that Church buildings were safe places for worship during the pandemic. While not making definitive commitments, he showed an openness (as he had done earlier in the day in the Dail) to a re-examination the place of public worship at Level 3. Definitive answers, he noted, will depend on government.
While the government seems t be showing an openness to move towards a modified Level 3, much will depend on what the situation is like at the beginning of December. In a number of countries where there had been considerable progress in curbing the virus, there has been a frightening return to very high infection levels as soon as restrictions were loosened.
I think it is vital that over the next two weeks that our Churches should be leaders in society in bring super attentive to attaining to the current norms. The way we work together over the next weeks will determine the manner in which we can properly prepare for and celebrate Christmas. I am hearing of laxity at some funeral events, not within Church buildings, but afterwards. It is vital at any events within Church grounds or in funeral corteges that social distancing be respected.
The faith representatives spoke of the ongoing work of Churches in addressing the concrete difficulties people face in the current stressful situation. Faith contributes to personal and spiritual wellbeing. The Taoiseach recognised the work of organizations like Saint Vincent de Paul, Crosscare and the charities of other faiths especially in addressing questions such as food supplies, mental health and loneliness. I mentioned how important Advent Church collections are for the work of our charities.
We have to use Advent to prepare for how we will celebrate Christmas, both liturgically and through our care services. Can we find ways of spreading attendance at Mass over a longer period than just Christmas night and Christmas Day? How can we organise more Masses at Christmas, while managing necessary levels of hygiene and sanitising? How do we reach out to people who will be lonely at Christmas? Many people living alone may not be able to travel to relatives? How can we ensure that children can experience the mystery of Christmas as the birth of the Christ Child? Families could be encouraged to visit the crib together. Can we provide simple online services of religious Christmas music and stories?
At meeting of the Standing Committee of the Bishops’ Conference, there was some discussion as to how we can provide greater access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for those who wish to avail of it. The Bishops also reminded that, when access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not readily available, people can make acts of perfect contrition in order to attain forgiveness and return fully to the state of grace.
Christmas 2020 will certainly be a very different Christmas to anything we have experienced. We have to show that the simplicity of the Christmas message can touch hearts in any situation.
We will also have to celebrate Christmas at a time of uncertainty. Even with the promise of more rapid access to vaccines there is no doubt that the pandemic crisis will continue well into the coming year and we shall have to find ways to live with the virus without losing hope. This makes our demands for reopening of Churches for public worship more important not just for ourselves but for society.
Finally, as priests and as leaders in our Christian communities we should allow ourselves the time and space to keep our own hearts open to the message of which we are the bearers and not allow our own frustration and isolation weaken that sense of hope and meaning for which people turn to us. Let us pray for each other.
Archbishop of Dublin