By Fr Billy Swan
At Mass every Sunday, the prayers of intercession offered by each church community ought to include intentions for our government and civic leaders (see General Instruction of Roman Missal, para. 70). If there was a time when this was important, then it was surely last weekend when the government had the unenviable task of deciding to take NEPHET’s advice and move the country into Level 5 of lockdown to try and suppress the spread of COVID-19 and to protect public health. As part of that plan to move to Level 5, the government drew up a list of what essential services and retail outlets could remain open for the next six weeks. And so for example, as published on the government website, education, health care, manufacturing, financial and legal activities, pharmacies, supermarkets and others, were all considered to be essential (for the full list, see www.gov.ie/en/publication/c9158-essential-services/). Very few would argue with what is included on this list as being considered essential for us to survive and endure the next six weeks of lockdown.
The issue that many have is not what is on the list but what is not on it. Many do not accept the exclusion of public worship from this list and the judgment of public worship and public prayer as being non-essential.
When we draw up a list of essential services in order to survive at a time of crisis, what we include on that list reveals something about who we are. It tells us what we value most and what are our priorities. In government statements at the weekend and in the compilation of the list of essential services, different aspects of human well-being were considered. These included the need to buy food, medicine, the need to avoid isolation and allowed visits to homes of people on compassionate grounds and for care. The main negative effect of the lockdown discussed was the economy and how moving to Level 5 would mean the loss of thousands of jobs meaning thousands will slide into poverty. The effects of this lockdown on mental health was also given deserved consideration and the feared increase in domestic violence.
What was not included in this evaluation of human well-being was the religious and spiritual element that believers consider to be an essential dimension to human existence and endurance. The underlying assumption in civic discussion on this issue is that religion and spirituality are private affairs. When we moved into Level 3 a few weeks ago, it was glibly announced that ‘religious services will be moved online’ without proper recognition of the negative consequences that such action would have on peoples’ well-being.
The counter-argument will no doubt be made that Ireland is now a plural place and we must recognize all religions and none. That is certainly true. However, what is not acceptable is a bracketing out of the religious and spiritual dimension of life as if it were a matter of taste, choice or ‘whatever you are in to’. I am sure that all the Christian Churches and our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters would agree with this.
But for us who are Christian, we are right to protest when our Christian and spiritual heritage seems to be ignored and jettisoned in the current thinking and decisions. This was seen with the decision to ban public worship in the Republic of Ireland at this time, becoming the only European country to do so and despite the fact that public worship is allowed to continue in many countries that have higher infection rates than ours. In his pastoral letter released this week, Bishop Denis Brennan points to ‘the need to revisit and amend the continued existence of church closures for public worship, as implemented from Level 3. Being the only place in Europe where church closure exists in this instance, is clearly sufficient reason to revisit the matter, to reassess its necessity and to re-examine its appropriateness, and to consider the positive benefits of it being lifted’.
One of those positive benefits of public worship and prayer that has been verified time and time again is the area of mental health. There is evidence that shows those who participate in rites, rituals and public prayers have better mental health than those who don’t. Research findings show how the risk of suicide in people suffering from depression is lowered by participation in rites of prayer, worship and religious faith. The most recent research from Harvard University also confirm that frequent attendance at religious services is associated with lower subsequent risk of deaths from despair (for the results of this study published in May 2020, see https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2765488).
These are only some of the reasons why participation in public worship ought to be considered as an essential component of our wellbeing. It is not the case of having something to console us when times are tough. It is about the well-being of the nation not depending on us feeling good or having games to entertain us. It is something much deeper. For us, it is about staying connected to a source of life and meaning that gives us the resilience and compassion to make it through this crisis together. It is about contemplation of the cross of Christ and our share in it at this time while learning the lessons of his patience and love. It is about a strong spiritual connection with our ancestors in faith who lived through penal times, the famine, emigration and the civil war with the help of their faith which gave them hope and the strength to continue. It is about community and being stronger together, being aware of those who are in danger of being forgotten and those in need. Public prayer gives us the space to receive these benefits and to share them with others. They are not to be underestimated for they have served us well for centuries.
After the present lockdown ends on 1st December, it is difficult to predict where we will be. Will we be going to Level 4, Level 3 or back to Level 2? From this vantage point, no one knows. But whatever Level we return to, and as the list of essential services is reviewed, there is a strong case for the right to public worship to be restored. We must fight against the repeated assumption that the right to public prayer and worship can be dismissed easily as being ‘non-essential’. If this lockdown has been to ‘save Christmas’ from a commercial point of view then surely the right to public worship can be saved too, if Christmas is to be respected for its proper religious and spiritual meaning.