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Clonard says reopening of churches for private prayer 'an important' first step

Fr Peter Burns, Rector of Clonard Monastery in west Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Marie Louise McConville

THE Rector of Clonard in west Belfast has described the decision to allow churches to reopen for private prayer amid the Covid-19 lock-down as a first step, "but an important one."

Fr Peter Burns said he was pleased by the development, adding that Clonard had already "begun to prepare for the reopening".

This week's first steps in easing the lockdown restrictions come as many churches, including Clonard, have been closed since March.

READ MORE: Some churches reopen for private prayer as lockdown restrictions ease

A 15-member Redemptorist community who live on site at Clonard Monastery have had to live behind closed doors as all but two of them are aged 75 and over and are therefore considered vulnerable.

Fr Burns said many people had "felt the closure of Clonard and will welcome the opportunity to come into the church and spend a little time in personal prayer".

"The community felt the absence of people," he said.

"How strangely quiet everything was. Now there will be people - even if the numbers are small - around again.

"But we do have to be very vigilant and ensure that it’s safe for people to be in the church. We’ll have to observe whatever procedures are necessary to protect against the spread of the virus".

Fr Peter Burns, pictured outside Clonard, which has been closed for the past number of weeks due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture by Hugh Russell

Fr Burns said, provided it is safe, Clonard could be open again by the end of this week.

"I’m sure members of the community will welcome this development," he said.

"And, of course, we’re all looking forward to when we’ll be able to celebrate public Mass, with the congregation present in the church - something which is surely still quite far down the road."

The Rector said the Redemptorist community had received a "little boost" during the lock-down thanks to the thousands of parishioners who have been logging on for Mass, describing the support as "wonderful".

Fr Peter Burns at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

Despite the lockdown and the church being closed, the community is continuing to celebrate 20 Masses a week - three daily, Monday to Saturday and two on Sunday - all of which are online, thanks to a web cam.

"The number of people joining us online is very impressive especially for weekend Masses and Novena Masses every Thursday," said Fr Burns.

"For Redemptorists, like all priests, their oxygen is contact with people on a daily and weekly basis and not having them, well Clonard has been extraordinary these last two months. No people. The door of the church is closed. The door of the monastery is closed. It is a very, very strange experience.

"Interacting with people, meeting people, ministering to people, that is our reason for being and not to have that is a huge deprivation. We are deprived of something but the fact that we are able to do 20 Masses a week... We have tried to do it as well as we could. We have some singing and music at every Mass.

"We have grown in awareness to the fact that all these people are coming online and we have been able to focus away from the empty church.

"It hasn't just given us a little boost, it is enormously important because this is the only kind of ministry we are able to do, we are trying to do it as well as we can.

"Obviously, Mass online can never be a substitute but when that isn't possible, celebrating the Eucharist online is better than nothing.

"The number of people who have contacted us by e-mail and post and social media and the quality of the responses. People have found the experience of joining in online very helpful and they are really, very appreciative."

Fr Peter Burns, pictured outside Clonard, which has been closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture by Hugh Russell

Fr Burns said life for the Redemptorists had changed due to the lockdown.

"We are literally locked into the monastery, nobody is going outside," he said.

"We are enormously blessed to have the garden we have and it has been very well maintained. The garden has been a blessing, especially for the elderly confreres. They can go out and walk around.

"We have reconfigured the dining room...to observe social distancing. Normally there are four to a table but now there is just two. We gather three times a day in the church for morning, midday and evening prayer and people are online for that.

"We gather for our lunch and our meals and it's a very nice atmosphere in the community. We are more than surviving. The people who are concerned for us are very reassured when they see us on the webcam".

Fr Burns was speaking just a few days after it was announced that next month's Novena in honour of Our Mother of Perpetual Help will take place online for the first time ever.

Taking place from Friday, June 19 until Saturday, June 27, the nine-day event will take the form of an All-Ireland, online Novena, which will be streamed live from Mount Alphonsus in Limerick and Clonard in Belfast and can be accessed from any part of Ireland and beyond.

Fr Burns said one of the options had been to "simply cancel" the Novena for 2020.

"We haven't done that," he said.

"We are just keeping open the possibility of being able to organise an in-house Novena before the end of the year. It could only happen if the circumstances allowed it. We can't close it off as an option.

"The other option was to do something online. Redemptorists have a presence right through Ireland. We decided we would do an All-Ireland Novena, not just for Limerick and Belfast but for the whole of Ireland. We are very much envisaging it as an All-Ireland event."

Further details about the online Novena are expected in the coming weeks.

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