Coronavirus: Catholic priests under pressure to perform funeral Masses despite Covid-19

Significant numbers of Irish Catholic priests cocooned in their homes as they are over 70

Catholic priests are coming under continuing pressure to hold funeral Masses, particularly in rural Ireland, despite Government restrictions due to coronavirus.

Fr Brendan Hoban, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, called on the Irish bishops "as a body" to agree guidelines for the conduct of funerals which would apply in all dioceses.

Some priests, particularly in rural parishes, “are coming under pressure to hold funeral Masses” which are “big occasions for the community”, he said.

To avoid pressure and variations in the practice, “priests would prefer if the bishops were to agree a directive on the matter. As it is, each diocese is independent, so guidelines are not uniform,” he said.

In the diocese of Down and Connor and in Clogher, bishops have instructed that funeral Masses will no longer take place. In Clogher, the body of the deceased is to be brought directly to the burial ground.

Meanwhile, the six west of Ireland Catholic bishops have decided that funeral Masses can continue but in accordance with current Government guidelines – in the presence of no more than 10 people.

Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran said he and his colleagues, Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary, Bishop of Galway Brendan Kelly, Bishop of Killala John Fleming, Bishop of Clonfert Michael Duignan, and Administrator of Achonry diocese Fr Dermot Meehan, had Zoom conferences most days to take account of updated coronavirus regulations.

On Tuesday, the Government advised that up to 10 members of the immediate family of a deceased person can attend funerals, burials and cremations.

Liz Canavan of the Department of an Taoiseach told a briefing that social distancing protocols should be followed and the numbers might be restricted to less than 10 if any part of the ceremony is taking place in a confined space. It applies to all funerals, including those for people who have not died with Covid-19 symptoms.


Religious personnel are among those deemed essential under expanded Government regulations to tackle coronavirus.

However, with many Irish Catholic priests aged over 70, it is believed a significant number are confined to their homes.

Among them, five Catholic bishops are cocooned including Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (who will be 75 and eligible for retirement on April 8th), Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary (73), Bishop of Ferns Dennis Brennan (74), Bishop of Galway Brendan Kelly (73), and Bishop of Killala John Fleming (72). None of the Church of Ireland bishops is over 70.

Dr Martin said: “Priests over the age of 70, including myself, are not to leave their homes. This brings extra work and pressure and stress on all those who remain in frontline ministry.”

In a comment on the archdiocese’s website, he said: “Some parishes may no longer have a priest available. Deaneries should become a focal point for co-ordinating services.”

Bishop Doran said in his Elphin diocese 21 priests were cocooned, with other priests designated to assume their duties.

Easter ceremonies

Meanwhile, Holy Week and Easter ceremonies will be conducted in empty churches. The Good Friday Way of the Cross event in Dublin's Phoenix Park is cancelled as is the annual ecumenical city centre walk on that day.

A Vatican decree has advised that the Holy Thursday "washing of the feet" is to be omitted next week and grants special permission for celebration of the Mass "without the presence of the people".

At the Good Friday liturgy “the adoration of the Cross by kissing it shall be limited solely to the celebrant” while the Easter Vigil “is to be celebrated only in cathedral and parish churches”. In all instances, there is to be one celebrant and no sign of peace.

In guidelines issued by the Church of Ireland on Tuesday, clergy over 70 or with an underlying condition are told they “should be self-isolating/cocooning at home” and “should not be taking funerals at this time”. No Church of Ireland public services are to take place until further notice.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times