Ireland Returns to Worship After Months Away From the Mass
St. Mary’s Chapel is pictured at St. Patrick’s Purgatory, on Lough Derg, which was closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic on July 27, 2020. Dating back to the fifth century, the holy site is a place of Catholic pilgrimage, where the faithful usually flock for three days of fasting, barefoot prayer and all-night vigils. Ireland recently announced lessening restrictions, including for public Mass. (photo: PAUL FAITH / AFP via Getty Images)
Following a year of pandemic-induced disruption, Irish lay Catholics speak.
As one would expect on the official Irish government website, there is much information on the current COVID-19 pandemic. Last month a new heading appeared: “What You Can Do in May.”
If one clicks on that heading, a list appears.
“Mobile home and caravan parks may open to facilitate owners accessing their stationary mobile homes or caravans: Property viewings by appointment only with licensed Property Service Providers.” And then there is notice that the following is now permitted: “recommencement of in-person religious services.”
And through this bureaucratic language, public worship at Holy Mass is restored to the Irish.
There had been no public worship across the Irish Republic since Dec. 26. Some had defied the ban and been fined for so doing. Generally, however, the ban was simply accepted and endured by Irish Catholics.
On April 30, Prime Minister Micheál Martin announced to the nation that Irish Catholics would be permitted by the state to resume public worship, starting May 10. Further prohibitions due to concerns over COVID-19 are still possible as the country moves forward. For now, at least, the Catholic Church emerges to shine a light of faith amid a global pandemic.
“Personally very difficult and painful, but also a major blessing through the pain” was how Tony Foy put it. Foy was speaking to the Register from his home in Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland. He says he has great sympathy for the Church in Ireland, and although he would describe the recent disruptions of lockdown as “challenging,” he feels they have “left the Church with a new reality,” one shaped by “humility and clarity of mission.”
Furthermore, this “new reality” Foy perceives to be “demographic” — clearly identifying those who want to go to Mass, “who are convicted about their faith,” as he points out “most others have fallen away.”
Foy speaks with some authority on this matter. He is executive director of NET Ministries Ireland, an apostolate that evangelizes young Catholics. In the midst of the pandemic, it had 30 missionaries working in various locations around the country and almost 20 mission support staff helping and praying for them, all with one aim: to bring young people to Christ.
“On a mission level,” he says, “the Lord has blessed us more this year than any other year, in terms of the young people reached and impacted and the vocations that have come through.”
“The people I work and am surrounded with are incredibly positive,” says Foy, adding, “Jesus is more powerful than the challenges we face.”
Surprisingly, Foy suggests Irish priests share his upbeat assessment of the future direction of the Church. He claims that as many as 70% of Irish clerics would share his assessment of the past 12 months and that that will have a positive outcome for the Church in Ireland.
“In the wider community where we live,” says Foy, “we are looking forward to reengaging with the sacraments.” Now what is needed, he says, is “courage and conviction that Jesus is Our Lord and Savior and that he died for a reason. Everything else flows from this.”
In the capital of Dublin, Liam Ó hAlmhain is a retired management consultant and the father of “a family of seven practicing and two non-practicing Catholics.”
Still, Ó hAlmhain feels it is too early to judge the impact of the pandemic on the Church in Ireland more generally. “The Church was already in a bad way,” he explains, “due to lack of ordained priests, the deteriorating moral climate, etc. I suspect that the existence of the pandemic and its associated restrictions made little difference. Of course, the absence of Church collections at Masses no doubt affected Church finances.”
What is Ó hAlmhain’s sense of how his fellow Irish Catholics are feeling as they return to churches? “I would differentiate between Catholics who actively practice their faith and who made the best of the [recent] circumstances and those who were notional Catholics,” he says. These, he suspects, “found the lack of any pressure to go to church convenient.”
As to what is needed going forward, his answer is emphatic: “Prayer and mortifications!”
Rosemary Connolly is a schoolteacher living in Longford in the Irish Midlands. She told the Register that from the beginning of the pandemic she missed “the presence of being at Mass every Sunday. This was our way of worshipping and praising God, and suddenly it was gone.”
As a committed Catholic, Connolly’s faith is an integral part of her life. Each year she would go on retreat, to choir workshops and on pilgrimage.
“I always find these places and situations spiritually uplifting and gain so much from them,” she said. “Being able to meet other people along the journey of life, I have always found inspiring. I always come back from these places motivated further in my faith and ready to give more in my parish.”
Needless to say, these activities, including pilgrimage, have been absent from her life for these last months.
“During the pandemic I have really missed [all] this. There were many online events, but I personally didn’t get the same experience from these,” Connolly said.
She understands how, at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the Church had to adapt quickly to provide some type of online presence for the faithful. “The priests and religious did their best to engage and be present during a very unprecedented situation,” she says. “However, the fact that we have such a diminishing and aging population of priests has really become evident during this time.” Furthermore, she accepts that, for many isolated clergy, “saying Masses in empty churches cannot have been easy.” Then she adds, “I think the Church in Ireland has struggled during this time.”
She continues, “I think the [involvement of] the laity in the Church is what is most needed going forward. The Church is the people and the people are the Church. Engagement with young people is so important, as they are the future of the Church.”
Connolly is part of the liturgy commission in her local diocese. During the pandemic she and others spent time trying to come up with new ways of engaging with parishes in regard to liturgy.
On the negative side, however, it was clear to Connolly that the Irish state did not share her view that the practice of one’s religious faith was deemed “essential.”
“I felt at times that the Church in Ireland was relegated to a nonessential entity,” she says, “when for many it is so important in our lives.”
“I think most Irish Catholics are [just] feeling hopeful for the future and glad to be returning to public worship,” she shares. “This time has definitely shown us the importance of worshipping as a community. Our faith is nourished by the people we are with.” Nevertheless, she worries that, in the days ahead, many will find it difficult “to make that transition back to Mass due to fear and anxiety.”
As a new reality comes into view, paradoxically, Connolly feels that the past 12 months of disruption and absence from the sacraments has strengthened her faith. “I really came to realize how important it was to me. There was something missing when we couldn’t gather to be present at Mass.”