KNOCK — On December 2, almost two months to the day since his parishioners were last permitted to attend Mass, Father Richard Gibbons’ greeting to his returning worshippers was blend of relief and contained 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, exhaling to emphasise 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.
After Christmas Day, public worship in Ireland will be banned once more.
In any case, the congregation at Gibbons’ December 2 celebration fell short of the sanctioned ceiling of 200.
Most of those present were mask-clad elderly – reminders of concerns raised earlier by one of Ireland’s Church leaders.
During a homily broadcast online on November 16, the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said the pandemic was “pointing the way towards another challenging moment for the Church.”
“The numbers who will attend public worship in the foreseeable future will be significantly lower,” Martin said.
Public worship was also banned in Ireland from March to June, a stretch that preceded and outlasted the country’s first lockdown.
With Irish believers restricted to watching Mass online for around five months this year, the impact could be to accelerate a decades-old drift of younger people from traditional belief.
“When churches were reopened for public worship for the summer period, numbers were low and the demographics of those who returned were different,” said Martin, who lamented that “younger faces were noticeably missing.”
Of Ireland’s already-dwindling minority of pre-pandemic Mass-goers, only 36 per cent said they had resumed “regular worship” during the mid-year reopening, according to a survey published by the Iona Institute, which promotes the role of religion in public life.
The pandemic and related curbs could be affecting other habits – in turn threatening a further erosion of church attendances.
Thirty-five per cent of people see themselves habitually “staying at home rather than going out” if and when the pandemic ends, according to an Irish government survey published on November 30.
The government rebuffed requests by religious leaders to reopen public worship during Ireland’s second lockdown.
That was despite churches voluntarily closing ahead of the first lockdown and implementing stringent distancing measures in already sparsely attended churches after the mid-year resumption.
Ireland, which along with Poland and Malta was, until the 1990s, one of Europe’s more notably Catholic cultures, had kept church doors closed for longer than any other country on the continent.
Reacting to the announcement of the third lockdown, Diarmuid Martin told Irish public broadcaster RTÉ on December 22 that “we should discourage people from taking risks.”
Kevin Doran, a usually outspoken bishop, said on December 23 that he “encouraged” worshippers over Christmas “to visit the crib and to pray there for a moment, following all the usual health guidelines to keep everyone safe.”
Catholic commentators in Ireland have criticised clericss for being too passive in the face of government restrictions, pointing to court successes in France, Germany, the US and elsewhere that ruled in favour of public worship being allowed during lockdowns.
The Irish approach appears to be in line with Pope Francis’ take on how to handle to the pandemic.
In an article published in the New York Times on November 26, Francis endorsed lockdowns and lambasted those who cited “personal freedoms” when protesting against restrictions.
According to Francis, an 84-year-old who six decades ago almost died of a respiratory disease, “most governments acted responsibly, imposing strict measures to contain the outbreak.”
Despite the pope’s comments, responses to restrictions have varied among the world’s 1 billion-plus Catholics.
French believers took to the streets to protest a recent short-lived ban on worship, while prominent Church figures elsewhere have fought for retaining at least some public worship.
“While we have been and will continue to adhere to all safety protocols to protect our communities, it is also important to protect that fundamental constitutional right, religious liberty,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, in November.
In a May post he has retained atop his Twitter profile, Robert Sarah, a Guinean cardinal, said “nobody can prevent a priest from confessing and giving communion, nobody has the right to stop him.”
And after eventually getting a city-wide ban on public worship overturned, Salvatore J Cordileone, archbishop of San Francisco, wrote in the journal First Things in November that “government cannot arbitrarily ban worship.”
“Catholics have shown we can celebrate the Mass safely,” he added.
However, echoing his fellow archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, Cordileone conceded that “we know that the Church will face a great contraction in Mass attendance post-Covid.”
“We must have innovative and creative ways to bring back those about to fall away from the faith.” Cordileone warned, deeming attendance at Mass as central to any revival.
Richard Gibbons, the priest in Knock, told his returning congregants on December 2 that the celebration of Mass is “at the heart and core of our faith.”
The following day, Francis published a message discussing the “post-Covid world.”
“I find the expression “building back better” quite striking,” he said, the phrase reminding him of Jesus Christ’s parable, warning about houses built on sand, which was read aloud the same day in the world’s Catholic churches.Show