‘A CHANGED ATMOSPHERE’ Fr Stephen Farragher believes church ceremonies will take time to return to normal.
For a second Easter in a row, the churches in the Republic of Ireland will remain shut for the second-most-important week in the Christian calendar.
In spring 2021, with churches across Europe – including in Northern Ireland – allowing limited numbers to attend ceremonies, Ireland stands as an outlier in its restrictions on public worship. Fr Stephen Farragher admits that the situation is ‘annoying people’.
Still, despite working under such restrictive conditions, modern technology has allowed him to connect with thousands of people from his church in Ballyhaunis.
As well as being broadcast live on Midwest Radio, services from St Patrick’s Church are regularly screened online. While Fr Farragher would prefer in-person ceremonies for the Easter week, he says that some parishioners might continue to enjoy the Masses from comfort of their own home even after restrictions are lifted.
“Some people who are very regular Mass-goers said to me, ‘You can get used to sitting down in the comfort of your own home and watching Mass from your local church’. It mightn’t be easy to get out of that habit when the whole thing is over, whenever that is.”
While many seem content to listen to or observe regular Mass remotely, the limit of ten mourners at funeral has upset priests and grieving families alike.
Fr Farragher echoes archbishops’ recent demands that the limit be raised to 25 people, matching the permitted number in Northern Ireland.
“The place where it hurts most is the time of funerals,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate that the funerals I’ve had recently have been elderly single people, but I know somebody that is seriously ill that has a large family.
“This excuse that the Government use that people are congregating outside – people are going to be congregating outside anyway, whether it’s in the cemetery or lining the route, particularly if they’re immediate family.
“It makes no sense where you can do down to a supermarket and you’ll see 50 or 60 people or more in and around shopping,” he adds.
“I think Archbishop Farrell, the new Archbishop of Dublin, articulated it very well on Morning Ireland last week when he said people’s patience is running thin. He said: ‘Out the road where I live there’s a church in Whitehall capable of taking 1,500 people. Allowing ten people in for a funeral makes absolutely no sense’.
“I do understand that numbers have to be limited, but I think for funerals at least 25 if not 50 should be allowed.”
While pastors feel aggrieved at the severity of the current restrictions here, many have recently acknowledged the much greater suffering of Christians in places like Syria, Iraq, Nicaragua and Venezuela during their services.
Fr Farragher is also adamant that comparisons should not be drawn between the current religious restrictions and the persecution suffered by the Catholic Church many centuries ago.
“People are saying it’s like the time of Cromwell, but if we want to know what persecution is like look at what ISIS has inflicted on Christians out in Iraq, where they were driven from their own homes. To compare our situation to that is a bit insensitive to people who are suffering real persecution,” he says.
While Fr Farragher foresees a slow return to normality at some stage, he also predicts ‘a changed atmosphere’ when all services do return.
“I know at the nursing home out here in Tooreen – I got both my jabs there because I get called out there to anoint people – staff and residents are all vaccinated, and the difference in the atmosphere… I called out a few times there, and you could see the anxiety and the tension in the air when you walked into the place on the staff and residents. All that is gone now.
“I think older people are going to be cautious.
Those who are really keen to get back [to church] will go back, but I think it will be a slow return to normality in terms of congregations.”
Fr Farragher also reckons that ‘an aggressively secular culture’ may have influenced the Government’s decision to keep churches closed for 35 weeks of the past year.
“What I know is that the Government know that there’s not going to be a revolt if the churches aren’t open, apart from a minority of devout Catholics,” he says.
“If it was 30 or 40 years ago the Government would be afraid not to listen to the voices of the Church, but that day is gone.”