Mass — like every other form of public gathering — has changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On July 26 last, many parishioners in Ballina’s St Muredach’s Cathedral and St Patrick’s Church experienced Sunday Mass for the first time since churches closed to the public on St Patrick’s Day and the Western People was in attendance at the latter.
The prayers and order of service remain mainly the same but the requirement for social distancing has heralded in many physical changes in the layout of the church, perhaps most strikingly demonstrated in St Patrick’s Church where, on entering under the guidance of highly professional stewards, one notes the presence of sanitiser dispensers instead of holy water at the fonts.
Inside the church, every second pew has been cordoned off with yellow tape while circular yellow welcome stickers indicate that capacity in the open pews is confined to just a few people — nearly all of whom are wearing masks.
Minor changes in the Mass itself include the understandable absence of the sign of peace. Meanwhile, instead of the passing of baskets, offerings are placed in a box at the entrance to the church while communion is handed out after the final blessing whereupon parishioners are free to leave the church immediately.
Parish priest Fr Aidan O’Boyle described the resumption of public Masses on Monday, July 20, last, as a very happy moment for all parishioners.
He said the parish has maintained a strong line of communication with the public in relation to all of the preparations that have been carried out in order to ensure that Masses can safely re-open in line with the Covid-19 public health guidelines.
A special expert Covid-19 support team has been assembled to oversee this process in the parish of Kilmoremoy while a large group of local volunteers — many from various community and sporting organisations in the town — have come forward to assist with the additional associated duties such as cleaning and stewarding in the churches.
Around the country, church capacities have been reduced drastically in order to comply with social distancing requirements and St Muredach’s Cathedral and St Patrick’s Church have been no exception, with the former now permitted a maximum of 135 people (as opposed to the normal capacity of 800) and the latter limited to 115 instead of 650.
Fr O’Boyle said that attendance throughout the first week was good, given that many parishioners are probably still opting to watch Mass live online from their homes.
“The numbers have been averaging at around 40 at the 8.30am Mass in the Cathedral and 60 at the 10.30am Mass in St Patrick’s,” he explained, adding that this is all being facilitated by the group of 40 voluntary stewards and the cleaning team which is comprised of representatives of organisations like Ballina Order of Malta, Ballina Stephenites, Ardnaree Sarsfields and the parish maintenance staff person.
The latter group has recently been augmented by members of the Ballina Community Clean Up Group which have now come on board to assist with the cleaning of St Muredach’s Cathedral in between Masses at the weekends.
“We have had a number of very successful training nights in both churches with church ministers, stewards, cleaning staff and volunteers to outline, explain and discuss the programmes,” Fr O’Boyle said.
He added that a special brochure produced to give clarity on what to expect at Masses has also been warmly welcomed by parishioners.
He said the people of Ballina appear very grateful to be able to attend Mass in person again and to be able to receive communion.
“We realise that it is very different from what they knew in January and February but they do genuinely feel safe in the churches. They see all that has been done to prepare for this.”
The new processes in operation at both churches mean volunteers come in after every Mass and clean all of the commonly touched surfaces. In addition, a disinfecting fogging machine which deactivates viruses in the air and on surfaces is used to deep clean both churches several times a week.
Fr O’Boyle said the return of parishioners has been a welcome relief to the priests of the parish too who are delighted to see faces in the congregation again and to experience the normal dialogue that goes on during the Mass through prayers and responses.
He continued that the experience of not being able to attend Mass in person has, in many instances, deepened people’s appreciation of prayer and worship.
With the first week of public Masses successfully concluded, Fr O’Boyle hopes that more and more parishioners will, on seeing how carefully and safely services are being operated, be encouraged to attend Mass in St Muredach’s Cathedral or St Patrick’s Church as usual in the coming weeks.