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04 Dec 2021

'Inspirational' Limerick priest has 'learned a lot' during pandemic

'Inspirational' Limerick priest has 'learned a lot' during pandemic

Fr Chris O'Donnell with PJ “Dasher” Cronin at the opening of the Kilmallock AC training facility on Saturday which Fr Chris blessed | PICTURE: Brendan Gleeson

IN 2017, hundreds of young people in Limerick appealed to Pope Francis not to move an “inspirational” priest from their diocese.

Fast forward four years, if Bishop Brendan Leahy tried to transfer Fr Chris O’Donnell from Kilmallock parish his letter box would be stuffed with angry missives.

Like the vast majority of priests, Fr Chris, as he is known to one and all, celebrated Mass online when churches were closed.

He has kindly taken the time to answer some questions from the Limerick Leader as we move into a post-Covid church. 

Through his words, his singing and even dancing, the priest brought succour to all ages confined to their homes.

“In Kilmallock we ensured there was a weekly family Mass by way of trying to cater for families and to offer them a chance to spend some quality time together in a spirit of prayer. Our goal with these Masses was to offer some family friendly faith messages in a spirit of fun and care. It meant we went seriously outside our comfort zones and all our mistakes were very public and often embarrassing! However, it was all worth it as the priority was to reach out to families at all costs,” said Fr Chris.

But has online Mass become nearly too popular and are some now happy to watch Mass at home, rather than put on their Sunday best and go to their local church again?

Prior to Covid, most parishes would not have had webcams and would never have streamed liturgies through Facebook, YouTube or Instagram. It was a steep learning curve but the speed at which parishes engaged with technology showed their concern and care for their people, said Fr Chris.

“Obviously the ideal is that we should physically gather for Mass and prayer. The sense of communion and community is a very important part of our faith and prayer. The sense of participation and togetherness is harder to experience online. The symbols, the sounds, the music, the movement nourishes the fullness of our body, our spirit and our senses.

“Of course people have formed new habits and fallen out of older habits. It is hard to know whether we will see congregations gather in the same number as they did prior to Covid. It is a very uncertain time in a church that is already in a difficult space. Naturally, it is easier for people to ‘watch’ Mass and it is fantastic for those who physically can’t come or those who are sick or unable to drive etc.

“We will always encourage those who are able to, to come and participate in the Mass. And yet in a world where people have endless viewing options, it is encouraging that people choose to watch Mass. Watching from the comfort of our homes and not having to worry about how we look is quite appealing on a Sunday morning!”

How did Covid change you as a priest Fr Chris?

“I don’t think Covid changed me as a priest but like everyone I can say I have learned a lot from it. I am very conscious of how challenging it was for those who worked tirelessly and courageously on the front line. Having a sense of this makes me reluctant to share how challenging it was for priests, as we would never want to deflect from the great work of others, nor look for attention for what we do.

“Naturally, it was a very challenging time for everyone. As priests we have become accustomed to many challenges in what we do, be it a decline in vocations and those who practice their faith. Also there is the ongoing challenge of working in a culture whereby often anything to do with faith and church is viewed negatively or deemed irrelevant. We equally lament the awful mistakes of our past and wish it was different and so it can be a challenge to promote faith in the current climate.”

Many families will have experienced priests like Fr Chris going above and beyond in their efforts to reach out during Covid to those who were sick, dying, lonely and  bereaved.

“Many of the priests who continued to tend to the sick and the bereaved were often at an age when they might have been encouraged to remain at home. Covid impacted on everyone and every age group and it was hard to see the amount of suffering it caused. It was particularly an awful time for any family who had a loved one sick in hospital or in a nursing home.

“It was an awful time for families who lost a loved one and had to navigate their way through funerals that were so different and so lonely. It was an awful time for those who lived alone and those whose families were at a distance. Much of a priests role is to care for and walk with people, particularly during the tougher moments of their lives. Naturally when our world was in the grips of a pandemic there was a greater need for us to do this and for the most part priests responded generously and bravely.

“More often than not priests put themselves in situations that ‘in theory’ might not have been ‘allowed’ in an effort to pray with and try to offer comfort to people.

“The funerals themselves with such limited numbers was soul destroying for families and so stark. Trying to manage numbers at a funeral or having to have conversations about this with people who are grieving is something we would never want to do again, not to mention those awful moments when we might have had do close the doors of the church, while knowing there was as much grief outside the church as there was inside.”

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