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Bishops voice concern over treatment of religion in Irish reopening plan

16951524442_eedd2c19d2_k.jpg Irish High Cross at the Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary, Ireland. Credit: Marie-Lise Van Wassenhove via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

As Ireland marks the first anniversary of the novel coronavirus arriving, local Catholic bishops are calling for the government to ease its restrictions on in-person worship services.

A pastoral message was released March 3 by the bishops of six dioceses in the country’s western Tuam Province - Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam, Bishop John Fleming  of Killala, Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, Bishop Brendan Kelly of Galway, Bishop Michael Duignan of Clonfert, and Bishop Paul Dempsey of Achonry

The bishops compared the current situation to arriving at a false summit while hiking, and realizing there is more progress to be made.  

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“Sometimes the last bit can be the hardest of all. We understand the experience of disappointment and frustration that many people feel, at the news of an indefinite extension of lockdown,” they said. 

COVID-19 cases in Ireland have declined steadily following a sharp spike in late December and early January. However, authorities are still urging caution. 

The bishops analyzed the five-state reopening plan for the country, published by the government last week. Under Level 5 restrictions, which will be in place at least until April, traveling more than 5 km from one’s home is prohibited, as is mingling with people from other households. Retail stores, bars, gyms and other businesses deemed non-essential must remain closed.

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The bishops acknowledged the need for caution, saying, “we accept absolutely that now is not the time for a major reopening of society.”

However, they argued, funerals are limited to only 10 people at Level 5 of the reopening plan, while a 25-person limit would still allow for safe services and would “bring much consolation to grieving families.”

The bishops also objected to the fact that public worship is banned even at Level 3 of the plan to reopen Ireland. 

“[This] ignores the important contribution of communal worship to the mental and spiritual well-being of people of faith. The fundamental importance of Holy Week and Easter for all Christians makes the prohibition of public worship particularly painful,” they said.

“While, as Christians, we are obliged to obey these regulations, we believe that it is our responsibility as Church leaders to make the case for change. We will continue to make fair and reasonable representation and we encourage you to do likewise.”

The bishops also asked the government to provide clarification on when the public may return to sacramental life - particularly to the celebration of First Communion and Confirmation, normally held at the end of the school year. Without this clarification, they said, dioceses have decided to postpone the 2021 Confirmation class until fall, and parishes are encouraged to adopt a similar schedule for First Communion. 

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“Should the circumstances change for the better, this decision can be revisited in each diocese.  In the meantime, we encourage young people and their parents to continue with their preparation. We have provided online resources to support what is being done through the Religious Education programme with the teachers in the schools.”

In their message, the bishops also challenged priests to do all they can to provide pastoral and sacramental care, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation and sacramental care of the sick.

They expressed gratitude that children will return to in-person schooling, and emphasized the need to share the burden with those still struggling under the lockdown. 

“All of us appreciate the efforts and the sacrifices of those in our community who provide essential services,” they said. “For many people, however, the continued high level of restriction poses practical and emotional challenges. We want to say very clearly that, in the Christian vision of things, every person is essential and no person is more important or necessary than any other.”

“When we pray the Stations of the Cross, we celebrate people like Veronica, who wiped the face of Jesus and Simon of Cyrene who shared with Him the burden of the cross. None of us can say ‘I’m ok’ until we are all ‘ok,’” they said.  

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