We are now well into the Advent season, that special time of getting ready for the great festival of Christmas. From the beginning of the month, many welcomed a new-found freedom with the easing of some of the restrictions that were in place. Preparations have begun in earnest in parishes across the country for the celebration of Christmas – albeit in a very different context this year.
Clergy working with Parish Pastoral Councils are making decisions at a local level on how best to celebrate Christmas in a safe manner. Sincere gratitude to parish teams throughout the county, especially stewards and cleaners who generously ensure that our churches are safe environments where people can confidently assemble for worship. Their task, as Christmas approaches, will not be easy, and I appeal to all the faithful to cooperate fully with them.
In the midst of the busyness and all the preparations at this time I encourage all to keep Jesus at the centre of Christmas this year. Clearly it will be impossible for our usual large congregations to assemble for Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Space is very limited in each Church, along the lines of the safety guidelines. Apart from the larger Churches, numbers are limited to 50 people and less in smaller Churches. Christmas is traditionally a time that our Churches are overflowing with people wishing to celebrate the sacred season. Please consult your local parish to see what arrangements are in place if you are planning to be present. Many parishes intend arranging extra Masses to cater for as many as possible within the limitations. There may be a booking system in place. Unfortunately, this is not possible everywhere. Some parishes may be opting to have Masses available on-line only due to the obvious challenges involved. Resources are also being made available to enable people to have a time of prayer centered around the crib in the home setting.
The Home – A Domestic Church
I would like to remind Catholics that the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days remains suspended during the pandemic. But Christmas is about more than just one day. If individuals or families cannot attend on Christmas day itself they are welcome to attend Mass at some point during the twelve days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany. Christmas Masses will also be widely available on-line locally and via radio and television and I encourage families to “tune in” from the “domestic churches” of their living rooms and join with those who are gathering in their local churches in welcoming the birth of the Christ-child.
It is possible to experience the spiritual richness of this special season in many ways. Our homes can become “little churches” where we invite the Christ-child in. The age-old tradition of lighting a candle in the window, having a Christmas crib in the home, and gathering there as a family to pray or to sing a carol will be especially meaningful this year. I also invite families or “household bubbles” to pay a visit to their local church at some time during the twelve days to offer a Christmas prayer at the crib and pray together for their families and for those particularly impacted by the pandemic.
The hope of Advent and the joy of Christmas inspire us to reach out to those in greatest need at this time. Keep Jesus at the centre this Christmas by bringing the hope and joy of his birth to people who are sick, isolated, lonely or poor. A simple act of kindness can make such a difference. This can take so many different forms. It may be keeping an eye on an elderly neighbour or contacting someone who may be having a difficult time. Charities such as the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Trócaire, Clarecare and many local charities will welcome much needed contributions as they have been unable to raise funds in the normal way during the pandemic.
I am particularly conscious of those whose livelihoods have been seriously threatened by the pandemic. I keep in mind those for whom Christmas time may bring feelings of sadness – people coping with bereavement, families that cannot be together, those in care homes who can only have limited visits from their loved ones. Christmas can be difficult for Irish emigrants and migrants living in Ireland, who are unable to travel home. I pray that the time will come very soon when sorrow will ease and loving connections can be fully restored.
Traditionally many people turn at this time of the year to ask for God’s forgiveness and for healing of spirit. Although it may not be possible for all who wish to go to Confession to safely avail of the sacrament, I encourage the faithful to confidently place their trust in God’s mercy through an Act of Perfect Contrition.
As we continue our journey through the season of Advent, waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, I am acutely aware of the yearning in our country and in our world for hope and consolation. In some ways the Covid-19 restrictions open up greater opportunities for prayer and for reflection, for family time and space to enter into the true meaning of Christmas
✠ Fintan Monahan
Bishop of Killaloe