'Many' priests in Limerick are planning to proceed with communions and confirmations despite the HSE advising against it, the Bishop of Limerick has said.
In a letter sent last Tuesday to the dioceses of Limerick, Cashel-Emly, and Killaloe, the Department of Public Health Mid West stated that these ceremonies should be deferred until September, due to the "current high rate of Covid-19 infection in the mid-west region," adding that, by September, most of those eligible should be fully vaccinated against Covid.
In response, the Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy has said “many of the of parishes at this moment are proceeding” with the ceremonies.
The HSE recommendation “has come as a surprise to many given local press coverage over recent days regarding low level Covid numbers in the mid-west," he said.
“There will, nevertheless, be full application in our churches of the protocols/guidelines that have been acknowledged by HSE as in accordance with public health advice."
The Bishop of Limerick said: “We have acknowledged the public health concerns of the HSE and passed on its recommendation to all our parishes."
The bishop added that “a small number” of parishes were “postponing” ceremonies, “and a decision has yet to be made by others”.
“Additionally, in relation to parishes that are proceeding, we have also not alone made the HSE recommendation known to them but parents with concerns about this will have the option of celebrating the sacrament in the autumn.”
“We appreciate, as outlined by the HSE, that their concerns are predominantly in relation to gatherings and parties that will happen away from the Church ceremony and we would urge the public to heed HSE guidelines in relation to these.”
Bishop Leahy has written to the HSE to update them in relation to the response across the diocese.
Last month the mid-west experienced a surge in daily case numbers, particularly in Limerick. However, there has been a significant reduction in cases in the past two weeks, despite a looming threat from the Delta variant circulating nationwide.
There have been fewer than 10 cases of the Delta strain in the mid-west, Public Health Mid West said. However, it said it remains cautious.
On Wednesday, the Archbishop of Cashel-Emly, Most Reverend Kieran O’Reilly, told parishes and schools in his diocese that “ceremonies are already scheduled”, and the HSE’s recommendation was “disappointing”.
The archbishop advised parishes and schools in the diocese, that “when evaluating the situation in your parish, serious consideration must be given” to the HSE’s recommendation, but that “it is hard to come out with one overall directive” due to there being “a wide variety of church situations across the archdiocese”.
He urged local clergy “to be cautious in your evaluation of the situation, discussing it with principals, teachers and parents/guardians, and parish personnel responsible for safety within the churches”.
The archbishop stopped short of directing ceremonies be deferred, adding: "Whatever decision is arrived at the ceremonies should proceed with great care."
A spokesman for the Diocese of Killaloe said it also “circulated its recommendations to all the parishes”.
“Some parishes had scheduled confirmations to take place after July 5. It is expected that parishes will consult with schools and parents before making final decisions. Parishes will be happy to facilitate the wishes of the parents in these matters and provide alternatives where necessary.
"You will appreciate that every parish is different in terms of size, number of candidates and so on.
“The final decision as to whether sacraments will be celebrated during the summer will be made in the context of the local parish in consultation with the families of the candidates, having been made aware of the HSE recommendations and having taken local circumstances into consideration.”
The HSE’s chief operations officer Anne O’Connor has called on people to follow public health advice and exercise caution when it comes to planning communion and confirmation parties.
Speaking toon Friday, Ms O’Connor said people needed to ask themselves “do these things need to happen?”
“We are seeing cases growing where there is mixing - there’s no doubt about it. The problem is this particular variant moves so quickly, because of its higher level of transmissibility,” she added.
Over the past two weeks, more than 500 cases were identified in the mid-west, mostly in Limerick, which is down significantly from the over 830 identified in the previous two weeks.
A spokesman for Public Health Mid West said churches and places of worship have been generally safe environments within the parameters of Public Health guidelines but that “indoor gatherings and celebrations traditionally associated with communions and confirmations are considered high-risk settings for those who are unvaccinated”.
“While the incidence of the (Delta) variant remains low in the mid-west region (<10), we are concerned about the increase in transmission of the Delta variant nationwide," they added.