This weekend marks the most significant date in the Christian calendar but church doors will not be opening for Mass for another month at least. John Meagher speaks to some of those calling for a rethink
Declan Ganley has no interest in pulling punches. “Official Ireland is ashamed of Christianity,” he says. “It is ashamed of the Catholic faith. It’s embarrassed by it. It’s like a truculent 13-year-old in its awkward teenage stage and it doesn’t want to be seen with its parents.”
The Co Galway-based businessman, famed for campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty, has taken a legal challenge to the constitutionality of closing churches during the pandemic.
He was dismayed by Micheál Martin’s scant mention of churches in his address to the nation this week. The Taoiseach suggested they might reopen in May, subject to case numbers, but made no reference to the Christian origins of Easter. Ganley was far from surprised.
“Practising Christians are despised in Ireland now — that’s a fact,” he says. “The official church in Ireland didn’t realise that until quite recently. They thought they were part of the establishment, but the establishment hates them.”
Ganley points out that Ireland is one of the few countries that has prohibited public worship under Covid. Churches here have been closed since Christmas, having opened for only a matter of weeks in December.
He says his right to practise religion is being breached and he has gone to the courts to argue that Article 44 of the constitution gives him a right to attend Mass in person. Mr Justice Charles Meenan has given the State until next week to clarify whether there is a legal basis for Covid-19 restrictions on people attending Mass or whether they are merely advisory.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín has also been urging the Government to relax restrictions on church attendance.
“To be honest,” he says, “it’s unbelievable that Ireland shares a notorious club with North Korea and Saudi Arabia when it comes to the practice of Christianity. In the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is declared that the practice of religion is a human right and for millions of people in this state it is considered essential.
“My biggest difficulty is when we ask Nphet [the National Public Health Emergency Team] and the Government to indicate the science behind their decision on safe religious practice. They continuously say it’s not the issue itself but the message that it communicates to the public about movement in general. We need to treat people like adults.”
Last June, the then Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin questioned why only 50 people were permitted in large churches. Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said: “We think that the restrictions on indoor gatherings are really important ones for us to maintain a high level of compliance with.” Nphet’s advice on indoor groups has only strengthened since.
This weekend marks the most significant date in the Christian calendar, but hopes that churches would be open for Mass at Easter have been dashed for a second consecutive year.
The Taoiseach said he was “surprised” a fortnight ago when a number of bishops pressed for clarity, and this week Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore called for “proper consultation” about public worship.
A small number of clergymen have decided to say Mass in front of a physical congregation in recent weeks, including Fr PJ Hughes in rural Co Cavan. He has been issued with a €500 fine for saying Mass in breach of the restrictions, but he says he will not be paying.
Garda checkpoints were installed near Our Lady of Lourdes Church at Mullahoran last weekend to stop people travelling to the Mass. “A guard told me that I was putting the lives of elderly people at risk,” he told an Irish Times reporter who turned up at the church on the Sunday. “It’s a sad day that three garda cars are circling around this church. Have they nothing else to do? God help us.”
Fr Hughes, the parish priest of the Mullahoran and Loughduff, did not respond to an interview request from Review but it is thought that he will be saying Easter Mass in front of parishioners tomorrow.
Riaghan O’Callaghan, a devout Catholic from Donegal, is proud of Fr Hughes’ stance — and she says she wishes more clergy would follow his lead.
“I’m being told what is and isn’t essential to my worship,” she says. “There’s a complete lack of understanding about the Eucharist and how we don’t have any compromises on it. I can’t go without the Eucharist for an extended length of time — that’s what explicitly makes me Catholic.”
O’Callaghan is upset that she cannot go to her local church in Ardara for Mass for a second consecutive Easter. She is keen for non-believers and lapsed Catholics to understand why attending in person is so important to her and others. She uses an example in her private life.
“I’m in a long-distant relationship at the moment. My fiancé, Hugh, is in California and I’m preparing to marry him. If I said to anyone, ‘Yeah, I’m still in a relationship with him but it’s tough — it’s all via phone. I don’t get to go on dates, I don’t get to spend time with him, I don’t get to talk to him face-to-face’, and if they said, ‘Sure, aren’t you happy with that?’ you’d think they were crazy because anyone who would say that would obviously not know the very basic parts of what a relationship is.
“And, for me, it’s very similar with the Eucharist. Of course, I can pray to God at home, but the Eucharist is where I literally meet Him and I receive Him and I need that as a Catholic.”
It is a sentiment shared by another devout twentysomething, Clodagh Gallagher from Co Waterford. “Mass is a sacrament,” she says. “And what a sacrament is, by its very nature, is something that can only happen in person. Think of another sacrament that people would be very familiar with — a wedding.
“A wedding cannot happen without the bride and the groom present. You can’t get married over Skype. Sacraments are very physical and Catholics have a physically real faith — we look at the Catholic faith as something that’s very real.”
For her maternal grandmother, Nora Sweeney, that faith was unshakeable. She died in September and had not been permitted to go to Mass during the final seven months of her life. “All my grandmother wanted to do was go to Mass,” she recalls. “The week before she died — we knew she was dying — we stayed with her and we prayed the rosary with her. And all she wanted was to receive the Eucharist and to go to Mass. How can you deny someone that on their death bed? It just seems so senseless and cruel.”
Gallagher says she is unhappy that senior church leaders have not been more vociferous in their condemnation of the restrictions, but she is pleased that figures such as Dermot Farrell, the new Archbishop of Dublin, have been making their displeasure heard.
Although the Government has agreed to increase the numbers who can attend funerals from 10 to 25, Archbishop Farrell has criticised the decision to wait until April 26 for this easing of restrictions.
In his first Chrism homily as head of the country’s most populous diocese, he said he would continue to lobby the Government for the “earliest possible” return to public worship. He warned that the easing of restrictions “must not be subordinated to powerful commercial interests, even those considered ‘non-essential’.”
It is not just Catholics who are calling for a return to normal service, albeit with safety protocols in place. Rev Alastair Dunlop, minister at the Howth and Malahide Presbyterian Church, Co Dublin, wants to reopen as soon as possible.
“Churches have already demonstrated — in July, August and December — that we could operate with reasonable safety as long as we put various important measures in place, which we did,” he says. “There is not adequate data to show otherwise.”
He says that as a clergyman it is painful to officiate in an empty church. “It’s very disheartening because it really undermines pastoral ministry and oversight. Who’s been missing for a while? Who should I follow up to encourage back? Who’s hurting and struggling? I have very little clue because all I see is a camera and empty pews. For 40 weeks.”
Rev Dunlop believes webcams offer a poor facsimile. “Personal or family devotion at home does not constitute Christian worship since it is far removed from tangible fellowship,” he says. “We are people, not pixels. The church is an assembly — gathering to worship as one body is intrinsic to who we are.”
He also offers a more prosaic reason why online services don’t work: “Not everyone has access to the livestream or to Zoom meetings.”
Some clergy remain concerned about the transmissibility of Covid-19. Fr Tim Hazelwood, who serves the Killeagh-Inch parish in Co Cork and is a spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests, believes it is too soon to ease restrictions. “We need to remember that people are not denied the right to practice their faith,” he says. “All the ceremonies are online — people can safely practice their faith.”
He says it is “not right” to be “given special privileges before other people”. How, he asks, “can we expect to be put before people whose livelihoods are lost or in danger, people like restaurant owners, hairdressers, beauticians?
“The other thing we can’t forget is that we’re making this sacrifice for the good of everybody, especially the most vulnerable. The Christian faith is about sacrifice for the good of others and that’s why we’re doing it.
“In my opinion, what the Government are doing at present is very fair — they’re treating everybody equally. It’s taking away the idea of pressure groups and we should be supporting the Government in trying to do what’s right for the country.”
It’s a view shared by another priest, a Dublin-based septuagenarian, who initially agrees to speak on-record but later asks for his name not to be used.
“I spoke in favour of Masses going online in the time of this pandemic,” he explains, “and I got dog’s abuse — and from people who say they are deeply Catholic. They weren’t from my parish, mind. They were people who don’t seem to believe that this virus is real and who were angry that I, as priest, wasn’t saying what they wanted to hear.
“Of course, this is a challenging time for everyone, but we are in the middle of a once-a-century public health crisis and we all have to do what’s right to get out of this. Normal life will return and churches will come back as they did before. I can’t wait to welcome people back here but there’s no point in any of us risking our health and lives — and I say that as someone who’s in the vulnerable age category too and waiting on a vaccine.”