INTERVIEW:

Portlaoise PP Monsignor John Byrne on life in the time of coronavirus

Lynda Kiernan

Reporter:

Lynda Kiernan

Portlaoise PP Monsignor John Byrne on life in the time of coronavirus

Monsignor John Byrne, Parish Priest in Portlaoise on life during Covid-19

Portlaoise's Parish priest Monsignor John Byrne is still working on the frontline, with two of the five priests in his parish cocooning.
The necessary restrictions on funerals during the Covid-19 pandemic is particularly tough on grieving families he said.
“Really our hearts go out to those affected by the illness, the dying, the grieving who are facing the pandemic up close and personal.
“As a country one of the things we do well are funerals. Friends and neighbours rally around and that is very cathartic and very helpful. All those rituals are now very greatly diminished. It makes a difficult situation more difficult, burying someone without the usual supports is very difficult. Families are coping well. All we can do is just be present for them,” he said.
Portlaoie is a busy large parish.
Msgr Byrne said they would typically see about two funerals a week.
“There have been quite a number of funerals so that number is not going to be diminished. Some of those people had died of coronavirus. It is difficult to deal with death at any time, but in these circumstances, with the constraints on wakes and rites it is very difficult,” he said.
The eight deaths in Maryborough Centre in St Fintan’s over Easter Weekend was particularly distressing he said.
“A very sad and distressing situation for all involved - may those who have died Rest in Peace. My sympathy to their families and also to the staff who cared for them. I know how upset they are that their vulnerable patients and indeed also friends have died so tragically. It is Easter - we put our faith and hope in the Risen Lord,” Msgr Byrne said.
Celebrations at Easter were “surreal” he said.
“It has been a radically different Holy Week and Easter. It is the highest point of the Christian year. Our message this year has been that in spite of not being able to worship publicly, there is no social distancing from Our Lord, he is close to us all, particularly to the sick, the bereaved and the dying,” he said.
The coronavirus is like nothing he ever experienced.
“If you had told me this in January or February, I’d have told you you were writing science fiction.
“Palm Sunday has a very long Gospel. I was reminded of the anxiety I used to feel to ensure the 10am Mass is over so the 11.15 people can come into the carpark, and the 12.30. If there is a snarl up I feel a bit responsible. What I would give for a traffic jam now,” he said.
“During foot and mouth there were certain restrictions but for this just everything is cancelled, and there is not even sport to read about, it is surreal,” he said.
“May is traditionally First Communion month, with some 360 children prepared for it in the parish.
“That’s a huge lot of families and we don’t know yet what is happening. I suspect some will not happen. It won’t take place unless schools return in May, and that hope is decreasing. What to do then we have yet to ascertain, whether to hold them in September or wait until next year,” he said.
Masses are celebrated daily in the empty SS Peter and Paul’s Church, with the congregation watching online and listening on the radio.


The church is the only one in Ireland broadcast by Shalom World TV which broadcasts to 150 countries. The Portlaoise Masses regularly gets 300,000 viewers.
“It is extraordinary to be looking at an empty church. I have to remind myself that a huge number of people are joining us online and the parish radio, we do get a lot of communication back from them, from all over the world, and that’s a help,” Msgr Byrne said.

So far 62 baptisms and 11 weddings have had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 emergency in Portlaoise Parish. There were 363 Confirmations celebrated in February with a similar number enrolled for First Communions now in doubt. The parish includes churches and schools in The Heath and Ratheniska and has a Catholic population of about 20,000, out of a total population of 26,000.
There are five priests and five mainstream parish primary Schools with 3000 pupils, two special schools St Francis and Kolbe, and two Catholic secondary schools Scoil Chriost Ri and St Mary’s CBS.

The PP is grateful to have local musicians performing during Masses too, following social distancing guidelines.
The members of the Sunday Choir are taking it in turns to perform in pairs.
“That has been a help for people,” he said.
The lockdown has slowed life.
“It has given us time to reflect more than usual. It’s a challenge to people to keep themselves healthy in mind and body. The restrictions do seem to be having a beneficial effect and hopefully we can move to a more normal life, but it is not something that we will get out of in a hurry,” he said.
He had to close the parish centre and send staff home. Two of his priests who are aged over 70 are themselves cocooning and they keep in touch on Whatsapp.
A swell of volunteers are helping parishioners alone or vulnerable.
“From the early days people took the initiative and volunteered to help their neighbours and friends who are isolated, we had a huge response. Back then we had all helpers and no-one to help but now we are making quite a number of calls.
“We have amazing people who are doing messages, prescriptions, groceries even walking dogs. A number are available just to check on people who are cocooned and might not see anyone for a few days at a time.
“We would have known already we lived in a community where people are supportive, but people have come up trumps. I hope we remember that after this ends,” Monsignor Byrne said.
“Cocooning is an interesting word. In nature we think of caterpillars emerging as butterflies. I hope all those cocooning will emerge enriched and I look forward to better days.
“Before this we were consumed with the election, with change. Now we might have a different definition of change. We might realise we need to spend more money on health and value our people on the frontline, equip them with all that’s necessary. The pandemic has put things in perspective.
“It will take a while to know if there is a silver lining, but I think we are reflecting on what’s important, who is important.
“It’s not the fund manager, it’s the man or woman collecting the refuse, baking the bread, or serving that bread to us in shops,” he said.

Daily Mass at 10am is broadcast on the parish webcam, on parish radio and on the Shalom world tv website www.shalommedia.org. See www.portlaoiseparish.ie