As the number of COVID-19 cases in Dublin surged at the weekend and churches were forced to again close their doors, the Catholic archbishop in the Irish capital, Diarmuid Martin, fought back against what he called a “very serious distortion” of a Vatican document on returning to in-person Masses post-pandemic.

To say “that the official line of the Holy See is to object to restrictions” is false, Martin insisted, at the same time he warned against reducing the Eucharist, First Communions and Confirmations “almost to the level of a supermarket in which you can drop in and ‘get the sacrament done'”.

Full text of Archbishop Martin’s statement

Saturday 19 September 2020

(Source: Archdiocese of Dublin)

I am seriously concerned that many people may be underestimating the seriousness of the current situation in County Dublin and indeed now in other counties. The spread of the virus has reached serious levels and constitutes a real risk of radically increased infection within the community. In many cases, the increase in numbers is due to gatherings within households and communities.

That is the reason why the public health authorities are stressing the urgent need to reduce the number of contacts that each one of us has in this period.

Reducing contacts requires a specific effort on the part of each of us to deliberately change the number of people with whom we would normally come into contact. This is as important in the current situation as the need for face masks, social distancing and handwashing.

The need to reduce contacts and the size of gatherings is also at the root of the norms that ask us to limit public worship and close Churches.

It is true that due to the extraordinary effort of parishes in adapting Church buildings and reducing attendance, thank God, there has been no indication of the virus being spread in worshiping communities. However, the situation today has changed and the measures introduced, no matter how they may sadden us, are appropriate at this time.

I have seen reports quoting a Vatican document urging a rapid return to normal worship. Some are using that as an indication that the official line of the Holy See is to object to restrictions. This is a very serious distortion of what that document says.

The document, as I quoted yesterday, strongly supports the application of restrictive measures and “painful decisions even to the point of suspending the participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist for a long period”, when the need is great.

I understand the disappointment of families who had been ready for the celebration of First Communion and Confirmation and find them postponed.

Unfortunately, they cannot take place during the current period.

Places of worship must remain closed except for private prayer as well as for limited attendance at funerals and weddings.

I am also worried about parishes taking initiatives to “get First Communions and Confirmations done”. I appreciate the pressure that families and schools can bring in parishes.

We have to remember that First Communions and Confirmations are sacramental acts and must be celebrated in an appropriate liturgical context and catechetical preparation.

The idea that sacramental acts have to be done quickly and can be done outside the normal liturgical situation is false. There is no urgent need to celebrate these sacraments just because they fit into the school calendar. In many dioceses, celebrations of First Communions have yet to be begin.

Some efforts, often well intentioned, run the risk of reducing the administration of sacramental acts almost to the level of a supermarket in which you can drop in and “get the sacrament done”. This would reduce the Eucharist to a commodity.

First Communion and Confirmation ought to be celebrated through personal participation in a liturgical act.

Indeed, I have been hearing many very favourable comments on the small and intimately prayerful celebrations that have been taking place in most parishes and I am very appreciative of parishes who have arranged this. They show that carefully taking time produces better results that undue haste.

+Diarmuid Martin
Saturday 19 September 2020

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.