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The changing face of worship under Covid: how churches and leaders have adapted in the pandemic

Churches of all denominations are expecting challenges ahead, but as they adapted to the pandemic, spiritual leaders have had some positive surprises as well, writes Kathy Donaghy

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Contemplation: Monsignor Laurence ‘La’ Flynn on Station Island

Contemplation: Monsignor Laurence ‘La’ Flynn on Station Island

Archdeacon David Huss. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Archdeacon David Huss. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Attendance: Fewer people at church means pay cuts for priests, says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Attendance: Fewer people at church means pay cuts for priests, says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

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Contemplation: Monsignor Laurence ‘La’ Flynn on Station Island

For nearly 200 years, the annual pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Co Donegal remained unbroken. Even in penal times, when structures on Station Island were levelled, it could not be kept closed. The Covid-19 pandemic caused an interruption that was reflected right across the Christian churches, leaving leaders wondering when and if the faithful will return in their former numbers.

On June 1, Monsignor Laurence "La" Flynn travelled by boat to Station Island. Every year between that date and mid-August, more than 5,000 people have made the three-day pilgrimage of fasting, going barefoot and doing an all-night prayer vigil. As he walked the penitential beds of the usually busy sanctuary, he listened to the cuckoo in the hills on the mainland bearing sole witness to his continuation of the tradition.

Despite the restrictions, he says letters and petitions from people kept coming in. Some asked for prayer for political leaders battling the pandemic. Others had more personal worries.

"Maybe at this time, above all, we need guidance and inspiration that we will be able to get society and the economy up and running again," he says. "That is worthy of prayer. The way I hear people talking about the experience of living through things now is such that next year we may have even more pilgrims."

An hour's drive away at his parish in Kilmacrennan, Fr Paddy Dunne is unsure about what is going to happen in terms of people returning to the church post-pandemic. "Some say this has pushed us 10 years down the road," he says. "What a number of parents have said to me is that they don't expect young people to come back. I think we can expect big changes."

Fr Dunne, who presents a weekly programme on Highland Radio called Travelling with God, believes that while there will be challenges ahead, the pandemic presented some surprises too. The way people engaged online, tuning into services like Mass and evening prayer online was, he says, very uplifting.

"It's been phenomenal the way families gathered around for Mass and the feedback has been very positive. People have been challenged to bring prayer into their own lives and into their family homes," says Fr Dunne, who is also spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Raphoe.

In terms of innovation, the parish recently held its annual graveyard ceremony online. A photographer set up a drone to film it and a simple service was conducted online to keep people safe as the graves are very close together.

Technological adaptations can present their own difficulties, however. Even though some of the older priests were among the most enthusiastic about using the internet to engage with their flock, says Fr Dunne, weak rural broadband caused headaches in parts of the rural Donegal parish.

Across the mountain in Donegal town, Church of Ireland Archdeacon David Huss took to his bike to reach his 500 parishioners. While he found Facebook useful in terms of sharing services, by mid-May he felt the need to meet people face to face.

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Archdeacon David Huss. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Archdeacon David Huss. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Archdeacon David Huss. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

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Encouraged by his wife Beverly, a local GP, who felt her husband was less active as a result of Covid, Rev Huss cycled around his parish, which takes in the churches of Donegal Town, Laghey, Killymard and Lough Eske.

"I had been phoning the flock and, for those who were connected, Facebook and WhatsApp were great. But that desire for face-to-face contact is so strong. Once the regulations got to the stage where I could travel a bit further than 5km, I knew I wanted to get out and meet people again," he says.

He estimates that the numbers returning to services are about half of what they were pre-lockdown.

"We're trying to get the message out that Covid has changed the church but that Jesus hasn't changed," he says.

"A lot of the normal things of life and freedoms were taken away. Even though we're back having services, we're not staying and chatting before and afterwards. We're not going up to each other and shaking hands. That has taken a big toll and the recovery will be challenging."

Breaking down barriers

On the positive side, he feels that going online has allowed the church to reach others outside its usual circle. "We've had a wide range of people interacting and it's broken down some of the barriers - we had people from other traditions join us and it was easier to do that online than it was to come through the doors," he says.

Finola Bruton, chairwoman of Dunboyne and Kilbride parish pastoral council in Co Meath, believes that it is too early to say what will happen in the longer term in terms of people returning to Mass. She believes that the faith community is stronger than people realise and that clergy and lay people are doing all they can to make it safe for people to return.

While she says people are grateful for Mass being televised or broadcast online, it should not be forgotten that sacraments take place in the community. "It's where people find solace, friendship and support. People meet other people at Mass," she says.

Helen McFarland, from Omagh in Co Tyrone, says the Baptist Church has sustained her throughout the pandemic. "Even though it's online and I'm not physically there, I still feel part of it," she says. "People are still staying at home. Anyone who doesn't want to go to church will continue online. They may not have a huge number of viewers every week but the way they look at it is that there's people listening."

Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin believes that while social media has been a powerful tool for church leaders during the pandemic, one of the essential dimensions of the church is coming together. That has been slow to return, he acknowledges, and winning people's hearts and minds will be a challenge in the years ahead.

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Attendance: Fewer people at church means pay cuts for priests, says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Attendance: Fewer people at church means pay cuts for priests, says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Attendance: Fewer people at church means pay cuts for priests, says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Fewer people going to services means financial contributions will be down. Priests in Dublin are already taking a substantial reduction in salary, Archbishop Martin says.

Despite these difficulties, he says it is important that the Catholic Church doesn't become too bogged down in its own problems.

"The church will only attract people if it has a message of realism and optimism. The church here in a few years' time will be different anyway, pandemic or no pandemic," he says.

"In the descriptions of the early church, they all begin with 'they gather' or 'they came together'. We have to find new ways of doing it."


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