Catholic Church is beginning to see life after Covid-19

Attendences at Mass are back up again, say priests, but congregations are still anxious

When they met earlier this month, Ireland’s Catholic bishops decided that from April 17th, Easter Sunday, attendance at weekend Mass “will once again be deemed an essential expression of faith”.

The little-noticed rule change is, arguably, the clearest sign yet that the church believes the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic has passed, after two years during which almost every element of its activities was challenged.

Noting that “at the heart of the life of our parish communities is the Sunday Mass”, the bishops said they were encouraged “to see a return to full public worship in our parishes” and the resumption of all church and community life.

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However, people are still urged to be “sensitive and respectful” towards those who are vulnerable or anxious by continuing to observe social distancing and mask-wearing rules where necessary.

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For example, it is good, the bishops said, to invite people at the “sign of peace” to make a gesture or greeting of peace to those around them rather than offering the traditional handshake.

Shaking hands remains a cause of anxiety for many, said Fr Roy Donovan, parish priest of Caherconlish & Inch St Laurence in Co Limerick, who has noticed that people are still "very careful" about doing so, especially at funerals.

This caution explains, he said, why there have been “only a few removals” in his parish since most pandemic restrictions were lifted, with families keen to avoid having to stand and accept handshakes in condolence from queues of people.

The remains instead continue to be brought to the church on the morning of the funeral Mass, Fr Donovan said, but even then the nervousness of mourning families remains evident. In one case, the coffin was placed directly in front of the pew where the family was seated, which meant that mourners wishing to sympathise nodded to the family as they passed rather than reaching across to shake hands.

Older people are still fearful of going out and some have got used to not going to Mass

Where attendance at Masses was concerned, Fr Donovan said, “a number are still not coming back for the time being”.

“They probably feel it’s not safe or they may have an underlying condition,” he said. “And some told me they were not coming back because they would get Mass on webcam.”

Collections

There is better news for the church in that collections are up again, Fr Donovan said, though not back to pre-pandemic levels.

Fr Kevin Hegarty, co-pastor at Carne near Belmullet in Co Mayo, said he believed there are now as many Mass-goers "back as are going to come back".

“There has been a progressive reduction [in attendance] over the years. Older people are still fearful of going out and some have got used to not going to Mass,” he said.

Fr Hegarty said many people nowadays struggle to think of “anything as uncool” as church, likening this view to Fianna Fáil’s poor showing in last year’s Dublin Bay South byelection. However, he does believe there has been “an increase in private devotion”.

Fr Hegarty said he was recently reminded of comments by a priest returned home after many years in Ecuador. He said that if the decline in attendance continues in Ireland, "the church could run out of people before it does priests".

During a recent visit to St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, he said he noticed there were many pictures on its walls but “not one woman” featured on its main corridor. “It shaped the model of Church which we had. It is not the model western society has taken.”

The upheaval brought by Covid will spur change, he believes. His parish has five churches but “we don’t need five churches”.

During the pandemic the income of priests in his Killala diocese, as elsewhere, was cut. In his own case it went from €1,600 a month to €1,500.

Fr John Collins, co-priest at Swords (Drynam) in Co Dublin, saw his income cut to €1,897.50 a month in 2020. Generally, Dublin priests suffered a 25 per cent reduction due to the collapse in collections, though his income recovered to €2,024 a month last year and has been €2,172.10 a month this year.

Mass attendance in Swords “is more or less back” to pre-Covid levels, he said, though some elderly or vulnerable people have continued to watch online. Come Easter, Fr Collins expects to be back to normal.

“Collections are up, with many people using the tap machine, but we are up from about €600 to €900 a week. It’s still not back fully.”

Heartened

Another man heartened by the near return to normality is Fr John Walsh, curate at Buncrana in Co Donegal. "Numbers are up significantly," he said, "and most are wearing masks."

We live in absolutely wretched times but I got a bit of a thrill when I saw the lorry being backed through the gates of the Russian Embassy

Fr Walsh earned a public profile recently after applauding a Co Leitrim truck driver who backed a large ecclesiastical supply lorry into the gates of the Russian Embassy in Dublin.

Desmond Wisley (49), from Ballinamore, was arrested and later released on bail after being charged with dangerous driving and causing criminal damage during the incident.

“We live in absolutely wretched times but I got a bit of a thrill when I saw the lorry being backed through the gates of the Russian Embassy,” Fr Walsh told his congregation on March 8th.

The Wisley lorry visits Buncrana monthly, he said, adding that he would not have minded being in its cab “when it went through those gates”.

In Co Cavan, peace has come dropping slow to the parish of Mullahoran and Loughduff where Fr PJ Hughes caused a furore by continuing to say Mass and keep his church open despite the Covid-19 curbs in place in 2020.

The Level 5 restrictions then were like “living in a police state”, said Fr Hughes, who told gardaí when they visited that he had not realised there was “a law against people practicing their religion”.

He felt very sad for parishioners who wanted to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion, and said that if God was the creator of heaven and earth, “surely he knows how to deal with the virus better than any scientist or HSE CEO”.

In November 2020, he said checkpoints were set up on roads going to his church, while gardaí had told him he could be fined up to €2,500 or be sentenced to six months in jail. In March 2021, he was fined €500.

“Why should I pay a fine for believing in God and celebrating the sacrament? No, I won’t pay any fine. The last time that happened Cromwell was here after queen Elizabeth introduced the Penal Laws,” he said.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times