The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown restrictions have had a monumental effect on all aspects of life, particularly large gatherings, such as the celebration of mass. But that hasn’t stopped parishioners from practicing their faith and, in fact, has sparked a certain community spirit among people that wasn’t necessarily there before, according to Fr Joe McGrath.
“Most of the lads would be in their 50s, 60s and 70s, so there is a good bracket of them cocooning,” said Fr Joe, referring to the priests.
“And they’ve got stories of parishioners being very good to their priests and looking out for them, checking on them. And that’s priests all over the region.
“One priest told me that when he started cocooning, some of the parishioners put together a rota where they’ll take it in turns to provide him with a dinner every day, so every day at around dinner time, he’ll go out to his front doorstep and there will be a hot dinner waiting for him.
“And it’s not just that; people are calling their priests and saying they’re going into town, do they need anything, or do they need medication picked up. This would be across the board,” he added.
“A lot of priests are encouraged and uplifted by the sense of community spirit. People are networking, supporting the elderly, keeping in touch with them. It’s a massive community thing. The church is wondering what we can do to keep that going.”
It is difficult for parishioners who are now unable to celebrate Mass and worship in the usual ways but priests across the region are doing their best to keep in touch with the local community.
“Obviously, the biggest issue is people not gathering for mass - that’s such a huge change. Many of us (priests) are caught on the hop because we don’t have a webcam. Many priests are just learning slowly the basics of facetime, zoom, whatsapp, etc,” said Fr Joe.
“But it’s not the same. Mass is about participation, not being a spectator. And not being able to get communion is obviously a big thing.”
Being unable to receive communion is something that Pope Francis has tried to compensate for by inviting people to take part in spiritual communion, whereby parishioners can celebrate the eucharist without bread or wine.
But a connection to the parish priest is still important to many members of the community.
“Some priests are getting on their bikes and going to see parishioners. They’re keeping their distance and they’re staying within their two kilometers, but they’re going out and blessing houses. It’s like something out of the ‘40s or ‘50s and the parishioners love it,” said Fr Joe.
Unfortunately, because of social distancing restrictions, the Diocesan Assembly, which was planned for this month, could not go ahead.
“All of that is on hold now. Two or three hundred delegates were coming and it’s a massive disappointment that it won’t go ahead,” said Fr Joe.
“But the committee are trying to look at it through the prism of opportunity. It’s a massive gathering weekend, which will take place in the future. That’s been a huge step for the diocese.”
That goes for a large number of gatherings, according to Fr Joe, including the graduation mass at St Mel’s College, Longford, where Fr Joe serves as Chaplain.
“At the moment, we would usually be really flat out preparing for the graduation mass and bringing together families and friends,” he said.
“It’s a really lovely evening but it won’t be possible this year. God knows when we’ll gather for mass again inside a church. I don’t know if it’ll be possible even this year.
“Realistically, we could be looking at the summer of ‘21, but that’s so far away, I’m almost reluctant to say it.
“In the meantime, many priests have learned the basics of Zoom and Facetime, etc. It’s keeping people connected. We need to think creatively on how we’re going to keep going.
“From the perspective of priests, of communities, of parishioners, it’s about networking and enhancing that community spirit that has come alive, and about keeping hope alive that this will pass,” he added.
“It’s about creating hope and optimism for the future so people will be able to keep going and hang in there.”
Across the country, church leaders are putting out prayer resources and advice via social media and online platforms. Many masses are celebrated via web cam, and people are keeping the faith while staying away from their place of worship.
“There’s a whole sense of prayer in the home that might not have been there before,” said Fr Joe.
“This whole idea of community prayer is really coming alive and probably will come more alive over the next six months or year.
“And it’s not because people are afraid and thinking that God is punishing us. And that’s not the message of the church, that God is punishing us. It’s about hope.
“Many experts on the environment say it’s Mother Nature warning us and challenging us to look at the way we’re living and to think about the planet.
“But the message from the church is hope. We create hope and we hold onto that hope and tap into that river of good will that’s flowing through parishes. We play our part, as everyone else is, in keeping that hope alive.”
That hope is an essential tool for our young people too, Fr Joe is quick to point out. As Chaplain at St Mel’s College, he is finding it increasingly important to encourage the young students to stay connected, to look out for each other, as well as themselves, during these difficult times of isolation.
“I find that it was all a great novelty in the first few weeks. These young fellas thought it was great craic and there were funny whatsapps and videos going around,” he explained.
“But I get the sense that the novelty is beginning to wear off. Even in the zoom classes, the energy and buzz and humour is different this week compared to a few weeks ago. There’s no lads coming in upside down anymore for example.
“They’re not physically meeting friends, so I’m encouraging them to get in touch with their friends on social media - but not to be on social media all day, or Xbox all day, or watching Netflix all day.
“I was telling them I started baking and they had a great laugh at that. I was telling them stories of things that went wrong and the kitchen was full of smoke and I had to open the window and they got great craic out of it. I was sending them pictures of what I baked. I’m getting into the swing of it now.
“But it’s an opportunity to start trying things you mightn’t have done before - art, music, filmmaking or photography. We’ll get better at it and it’s a bit of craic.”
Mental wellbeing of young people is so important, Fr Joe stresses, and his main message to his students is that they need to keep in touch with each other and ensure everyone is connected and included.
Most importantly, he said, it’s important to have something to look forward to, and it’s important to remember that this period of isolation and lockdown will come to an end and life will get back to some semblance of normality.
“When all of this is over, we will suddenly realise how much we have. We will realise how little we need. And we will realise again how precious are the relationships we have with family and friends,” he remarked.
“We’re in the post-easter period now. Jesus has risen and returned to Heaven. The early church is slowly finding its way in the world without Jesus, as he is no longer walking among us.
“And that is so apt for this time because the church, the world, people, regardless of faith or regardless of whether they’re spiritual or not - the world is finding itself again and organising itself again.
“I’m trying to keep it positive. I’m not being unrealistic about the state of play. But after this lockdown, things will hopefully get better. Hopefully the sun will come out again soon.”