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Bishop of Derry speaks out on baptism and pilgrimage under COVID-19 norms

By Ann Marie Foley - 07 July, 2020

Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry

Churches need political clearance to perform the sacrament of baptism, but not to have the party afterwards, the Bishop of Derry has stated.

Highlighting the confusion around the current COVID-19 rules, Bishop Donal McKeown stated: “I can understand the thinking behind the earlier temporary baptism ban because, for some, sacramental events seem to refer to the large parties afterwards. Now we can have the baptism parties – but I am unclear whether we can actually have the baptism before the party.”

He went on to explain that he is not sure whether the legal restrictions have changed or if further clarification is forthcoming.

“When politicians accuse others of not understanding government messages, that might suggest a lack of clarity in the messaging rather than merely culpable deafness on the part of the listeners,” he said.

The bishop spoke about this in his homily last Sunday 5 July, but he also spoke of the importance of celebrating Mass as a community as limited numbers of parishioners have been allowed into churches.

“For 15 Sundays, we have been unable to celebrate Mass with at least some of God’s people. It is wonderful that, even imperfectly, we can today celebrate hope and community. I know from seeing tears in people’s eyes during recent weekday Masses that getting back to sacramental worship rather than just participating in virtual prayer is deeply important for so many.”

He went on to highlight the importance of being physically present in a church. “The Gospel message is not meant to limit or oppress us. The Gospel is focused on liberating us from what cripples us and tells us bad news about ourselves. That is why we are encouraged to pray each day and to gather at least weekly in church.”

He added that it has been a challenge to find new ways to gather. “Christ asks us to come together in whatever way we can to hear his message and to be nourished in body and spirit. I know that we have to find all sorts of new ways to both get this challenging message out and to gather people to support one another. But we are ready for the challenge,” he said.

The same challenge has been in evidence as the Derry Diocese approached its pilgrimage to Lourdes. In normal times, before COVID-19, around 400 pilgrims would be in Lourdes with the diocese. Instead, an online virtual pilgrimage is taking place and at the time of writing more than 4,000 pilgrims had tuned in on Facebook alone to hear Bishop McKeown’s first message. The second day had more than 5,000 participants on Facebook and other days had over 2,000 each for the pilgrimage, which runs from Thursday 2 July to Tuesday 7 July.

In his first message, the bishop said that people do not go alone on a diocesan pilgrimage: “We go because we are a pilgrim church. The church by definition is not a castle, it is open,” he said.

Each day of the pilgrimage, the bishop speaks on a theme, and the Angelus and Rosary are prayed. These are broadcast via webcam on the St Eugene’s Cathedral website, on derrydiocese.org, on Facebook and on churchservices.tv.

The themes include sickness, penance, children and baptism, young people, and today, Tuesday 7 July, he speaks on mission.

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