Leading article

Church won't be the same in post-lockdown Ireland

THERE is no part of life which has remained unaffected by the coronavirus and the measures taken to slow its spread.

This includes faith, which is so integral to a great many people in Ireland.

Churches were forced to close their doors in the middle of March and although they were allowed to remain open throughout for private, individual prayer in the Republic - a facility granted in Northern Ireland only from last week, to the appreciation of Catholics in particular - public worship has ceased.

In addition, there have been a range of restrictions, painfully felt by the bereaved, around funerals.

Churches of all traditions have showed creativity and imagination as they have embraced digital means of communication, including priests celebrating Mass via webcams and sermons broadcast on YouTube.

It is possible that drive-in church services, as permitted in the Stormont Executive's coronavirus recovery plan, may yield similarly innovative responses.

However, there is clearly an aspiration among the faithful and Church leaders for a return to collective worship sooner rather than later; attending church is a relational experience, sometimes intensely so, and not only in terms of God but also with other members of the parish community.

The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, reflected this desire when he said this week that "we need to move beyond the virtual".

The Catholic bishops are close to finalising an all-Ireland plan which they hope will allow public Mass and other ceremonies to resume earlier than envisaged.

The Republic's roadmap out of lockdown proposed July 20 as the date when places of worship could reopen; Stormont's plan, meanwhile, is undated.

The bishops are understandably keen to demonstrate to government and public health authorities that they can reopen their churches safely, prioritising social distancing and hygiene, before then.

Proposals being considered include Holy Communion being distributed from behind plastic screens, much in the style we have become familiar with at supermarket check-outs, and priests wearing clear visors.

Singing won't be allowed, and elderly parishioners will be encouraged to remain at home.

Ireland's other Churches are working on similar plans.

It is clear that, whether or not the authorities are persuaded by the Catholic bishops' efforts to demonstrate their readiness to resume public Mass early, attending church in the Covid-19 era will be a very different experience.

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Leading article