• on 19th December, 2020



19 December 2020

A difficult year is drawing to a close, while the future is marked by increasing uncertainty. Just one year ago, none of us could have imagined what was about to unfold. We remember in our prayers those who have died from the Coronavirus and their families and friends. We remember those in our care homes who have experienced isolation. We remember families that will be unable to come together to celebrate Christmas. We remember those who have lost their jobs and those whose livelihood remains precarious.

We also thank God for the way in which people have responded to the challenge of the virus. The response of front line workers has been supported by the genuinely mature response of the Irish people. Our Church has responded to a challenge that could not have been foreseen. After the initial closure of Churches for public worship, parishes put huge effort into preparing Church buildings so that they would be safely prepared for reopening. The level of preparedness that parishes have shown was such that Churches were reopened for worship some weeks ahead of the time initially foreseen.

Masses were celebrated on-line and parishes were able to provide access to a wide range of liturgies and prayer services, often with strong support from lay men and women in the parish community. Parishes stood by the bereaved in situations that were extremely trying for those who could only have limited numbers at funerals. A wide range of other pastoral services was provided. First communions and Confirmations were celebrated in a different way to the past and I have heard unanimous praise for the simplicity and prayerfulness of these smaller ceremonies.

As the year went on, despite being themselves in difficult financial situations, people quietly and generously responded with financial support for their priests and parishes. We are grateful to them.

Now we face the future. We are happy that many restrictions have been lifted as we prepare for Christmas. At the same time, we are acutely aware that the virus has a life of its own and infections can dramatically increase as soon as contacts become easier. We cannot remain unconcerned as each day the number of new infections in Ireland is increasing. Numerous European countries have already announced new and really dramatic curtailments and at times for periods of up to four or five months. Vaccines are on the way, but it would be unrealistic to think that their full effects will take place for many months.

At this moment, it would be unwise for parishes to be fixing dates of First Communions or Confirmations anywhere within the first months of the coming year. Fixing times and having to change them has caused real disappointment for many families.

The nature of the virus is such that we all have a responsibility to ensure that the simple measures of handwashing, wearing of facemasks and social distancing continue with the same level of strictness in application. Any increased movement within society brings with it serious risks for public health. Our parishes have to be extremely careful to ensure that respect for public health norms remains strictly in place during the Christmas season. If we keep on our guard, then we will have contributed greatly to the protection of people and social interaction. If we were to relax and become unthinking, we could find ourselves responsible for allowing religious services to become a vehicle for transmission and lead to a future lockdown on public worship.

For the coming Christmas season, we should be urging people not to take risks. Numbers wishing to attend Mass, especially on Christmas night and Christmas Day, will be well above the capacity of many our Churches. We should encourage people not to gather in numbers beyond what is approved. The vulnerable should be strongly encouraged not to come to Church. Indeed, people should be encouraged to discern whether it is opportune or not for them to come to Mass on Christmas day. It may well be more appropriate for them to follow Mass on-line as a family and perhaps at some stage in the day make a brief prayerful visit to the Crib, to permit children to experience the mystery of the birth of Jesus. Churches should provide the ample possibility for people to attend Mass at some time within the twelve days of Christmas

All of us involved in Church ministry, clergy and laity alike, should also be attentive to look after themselves. One priest wrote to me noting that if any one of us were to catch the virus, how many others would we be putting at risk and self-isolation. When you look at the attention that doctors and others are taking to ensure safety in access to them personally and to their premises, we should be equally attentive. Distancing ourselves from people is not within our DNA as priests. However, we have a duty of care for the people to whom we minister and with whom we have constant close contact such as sacristans and parish secretaries.

Priests are not immune to the personal challenges all are facing. These months have been hard. We have had to face loneliness, stress and frustration and these affect our mental health. I am very much aware of how my own ministry has been negatively affected by my age, uncertainty, and inability to travel. We all need restfulness and spiritual uplift. We need to share and experience solidarity with one another. I hope and pray that despite a very busy schedule, each of us will find moments over the Christmas season when we can be touched by the mystery of the Divine Child who became human and gave Himself out of love for us so, that we could experience and share that special peace that abiding in His love brings.

+Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
December 19th 2020

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