KNOCK — On December 2, almost two months to the day since his parishioners were last permitted to attend Mass, Father Richard Gibbons’ greeting to eager, returning worshippers mixed relief and barely disguised elation. “Good afternoon to you all and welcome back to Mass,” said Gibbons, parish priest in Knock, a village in the west of Ireland and Marian pilgrimage site visited by Pope Francis in 2018. Ireland’s second coronavirus-related lockdown had just ended. Among the restrictions, which included pubs, restaurants and “non-essential” retail being forced to close, was a ban on attendance at religious ceremonies other than weddings and funerals. So, after two months of saying Mass to unseen believers watching online from their homes, Gibbons was glad to face even the sparse gathering permitted inside the vast Knock basilica, which can seat almost 4,000 people. “It’s great – for me – to have somebody at Mass,” he said, emphasizing the “somebody.” But the reprieve did not last: on December 22, the Irish government announced a return to lockdown, citing concerns over a new coronavirus strain in nearby Britain.
DUBLIN — With concerns about coronavirus leaving most Catholic churchgoers without their cherished holy water, a prototype contactless dispenser is being trialled at a shrine in Scotland. In use starting this week at Carfin Grotto in the town of Motherwell, the device resembles a water-cooler or liquid soap dispenser and is activated by cupping a hand near a sensor positioned under the water. A video posted on the Carfin Grotto Facebook page shows the dispenser in action, with the narrator thanking a parishioner named Paul Lawlor and a local tech firm known as Lawlor Techologies for the device. “One of the things we’ve been missing the most,” the narrator said, “is blessing ourselves with holy water.”
DUBLIN — Ireland plans to allow public religious ceremonies again from Monday, despite confusion over how many people can attend and over how new rules will apply to places of worship. Starting next week, a maximum of 50 people can meet indoors as part of the latest roll-back of curbs imposed in March to stem to spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic in Ireland. After Diarmuid Martin, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, described the proposed blanket 50-person ceiling as “strange” and “disappointing,” outgoing Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Thursday that “a specific protocol” based on the seating capacity of places of worship “is going to be worked out” with religious authorities.
KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s Catholic bishops said on Friday that they have not been informed by the government about proposals to allow some non-Muslim places of worship to reopen for ceremonies from June 10. Defence minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Thursday that 174 churches and temples will be permitted from June 10 to allow up to 30 Malaysian worshippers attend services, as part of a relaxation of curbs imposed in March to stop the spread of Covid-19. A Friday statement by the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur said that it had “received no further news apart from what was released to the public” and that it did not know which churches could be reopened on June 10.
KUALA LUMPUR — Catholics in Southeast Asia will have to do without one of their most recognizable motifs due to the coronavirus outbreak. On February 26, the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday this year, Catholics in Malaysia and the Philippines will have dry ash sprinkled onto their heads instead of the usual smearing of a damp grey-black ash cross. Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, stated that the measures were motivated by “our concern for the well-being of our brothers and sisters” and the taking of the “utmost care and efforts towards the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.” The virus that has spread to around two dozen countries, has killed over 2,200 people, mostly in China, where the pandemic originated.
JAKARTA — Ahead of the Philippine’s midterm elections on May 13, Catholic Church leaders in this country issued some subtle pre-vote guidance in their Holy Week and Easter messages. Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila, probably the country’s best-known clergyman, used his Palm Sunday homily to laud “humble” leaders. Less subtly, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas penned a missive for a local news website that decried an “ignorance” that “has made us a nation that glees in murder” and “votes for incorrigible liars.” Posting on his Facebook page, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David drew an analogy between Christ’s passion and the upcoming vote. “Pontius Pilate gave them a chance to vote. It was a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. They elected Barabbas and had Jesus crucified. Will your vote in May be for Jesus, or for Barabbas?” asked Bishop David, who is the vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). At time of writing, the CBCP had not responded to an emailed request for comment. Bishop David’s question might have sounded cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with local politics. But given that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a prolific and usually profane critic of the Catholic Church, called the bishop a “son of a whore” in a recent tirade..
HONG KONG/JAKARTA — Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has criticized the Vatican for being “unfaithful” to its subjects in striking a deal with Beijing on the appointment of Chinese bishops, which he believes would eliminate the very few freedoms enjoyed by unofficially sanctioned “underground” churches in China. Zen’s comments come after reports emerged that Pope Francis has decided to accept the legitimacy of seven Catholic bishops chosen by the Chinese government as part of a rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing after decades of cool relations. Such acquiescence implies that although the pope is the one who appoints the bishops, it was the Chinese government that chose the candidates. “[Beijing] wants the Vatican to [help] get all these birds into the cage,” Zen told media in Hong Kong on Friday, referring to the appointments.
KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. President Barack Obama has just wound up a visit to Vietnam that saw two former antagonists, who for two decades have been growing trade partners, draw even closer, with the dropping of a U.S. arms embargo against the communist-ruled country. “He himself said the welcome of Vietnamese people has touched his heart. [He was] very moved and very thankful,” said Vietnam’s new prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in an interview with foreign media given on Wednesday. Obama was greeted by thousands of well-wishers on the streets of Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city and economic hub of the country, which was previously known as Saigon. However, the visit was marred by signals that Vietnam, a one-party state, remains unwilling to cede ground on freedom of speech, with several noted advocates of democratic reforms prevented from meeting with Obama as scheduled and with the government staging a sham election to the country’s communist-run parliament on the day of Obama’s arrival. One positive note prefaced Obama’s arrival in Vietnam last Sunday, with the release from jail of one of the country’s most determined dissidents, Father Nguyen Van Ly. The Catholic priest was first imprisoned by the communist regime in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War, and had spent much of the intervening 38 years in jail or under house arrest.
MANILA — When Pope Francis visited the Philippines in 2015, he was greeted with the adulation you would expect in what is one of the world’s most distinctively and devoutly Catholic countries — but not that way by the person who was elected this week as the nation’s new president. An estimated six million people turned out in the steaming tropical rain to hear the Pope say Mass in Manila’s Rizal Park, with hundreds of thousands more lining the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the papal motorcade and maybe even snare a fleeting blessing from the outgoing Argentinian. However there was one man who was not impressed by the pageantry, or even by the Pope, it seems. Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, the biggest city in the southern Philippines, was caught for hours in Manila’s infamously clogged traffic — the jam made worse by the huge throng in town to see Pope Francis. Duterte, famously abrupt and blunt, let his frustration get the better of him and called Pope Francis “a son of a bitch” — or “son of a whore,” depending on translation — remarks that predictably earned the mayor the scorn of Church leaders in the Philippines, home to around 80 million Catholics.