Northern Ireland

Blessing of the hands replaces `washing of the feet' on Holy Thursday in west Belfast

People have their hands blessed in St John's Church by Fr Martin McMagill as part of Holy Week. Picture by Hugh Russell.
People have their hands blessed in St John's Church by Fr Martin McMagill as part of Holy Week. Picture by Hugh Russell.

ESSENTIAL workers received a `blessing of the hands' in place of the Catholic Church's traditional `washing of the feet' ceremony yesterday to mark Holy Thursday.

St John's Church on Falls Road invited six key workers to take part in its service last night after Covid-19 restrictions forced a change to the liturgy.

Fr Martin Magill blessed an undertaker, a retail worker, a care worker, a nurse from the nearby Royal Victory Hospital, a teacher from St Kevin's Primary School and a paramedic on behalf of all their colleagues who had worked tirelessly through the pandemic.

By coincidence, the paramedic had been one of those who responded to a `999' call after the priest collapsed on Whiterock Road in February.

Pastoral assistant Catherine McCoy said the parish had been keen to keep the spirit of the holy day's liturgy in the service which had been cancelled entirely to attendees last year during the first lockdown.

"Last year we had no congregation at all, and we didn't even have a webcam at that stage," she said.

"This year there were instructions issued by the diocese and Rome about what we can and can't do.

"We weren't allowed to wash feet or hands because of Covid. The washing of feet is an integral part of the evening's celebration.

"Rather than just not do it and leave out the whole symbolism and richness in the liturgy, we thought about how could we do it in a contemporary way.

"Holy Thursday is about service. You wouldn't have been allowed into anyone's house without having your feet washed in Jesus's time and it would have been the lowliest servant who would have done it.

"Today we're not allowed to let anyone into our doors who hasn't washed their hands or sanitised their hands. We thought, what if we were to invite representatives of those key workers who have used their hands for the benefit of others and invite them to receive a blessing on behalf of those other people."

Covid restrictions saw the usual dozen called up for the washing of the feet halved and each key worker entering the sanctury individually to stand two metres away from Fr Magill to receive the blessing.

The church said while it does not know what will be permitted this time next year, it is considering keeping the practice.

"We're not just going back to what we were before. There has been great learning in the creative ways we have had to change what we do," Ms McCoy said.

"Our theme is to `Build Back Better'. Lots of things didn't work before and we're looking now to engage with people and build those relationships so we have a better community spirit within the local area."