Five Roman Catholic bishops from Ireland's 22 dioceses are set to defy COVID-19 restrictions after instructing local parishes to hold communion and confirmation services this month, drawing a sharp rebuke from the government, which have pleaded with them to wait until they consider further easing curbs later this month.
Ireland has been gradually unwinding its third and longest lockdown and will only consider easing measures beyond a recent reopening of indoor dining at the end of August over concerns about the more infectious COVID-19 Delta variant.
Regular religious services resumed for the first time this year in May. However, baptisms will only return, under one of Europe's toughest lockdown regimes, from this week, with ministers wary about advising that communions and confirmations may proceed due to the large social gatherings that usually follow these Catholic ritual events, known as sacraments.
While mass attendance has dropped dramatically in the once deeply Catholic Ireland, the church still owns around 90% of the country's primary schools and the two sacraments are major family occasions for many.
"I don't see any reason why the celebration of confirmation or holy communion should cause any concern on public health grounds because we have mass in all our churches, carefully regulated for 50 people," Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran, the first to make the move on Friday, told national broadcaster RTE.
Doran said the ceremonies, which were postponed in March, would be "slimmed down" in a similar way to last year, with families told not to hang around in the church for photographs afterwards and urged to limit the numbers for any subsequent gatherings.
Prime Minister Micheál Martin has said he does not approve of any unilateral breaching of regulations, while Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said that any such breach could put people's lives at risk.
The reformist Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland criticised the bishops, saying the move would inevitably contribute to the spread of disease and inadvertently boost anti-vaccine groups by being seen to defy the authorities.
"I'm quite amazed, I think it's an extraordinary thing for the bishops to be doing considering it's only a matter of five or six weeks before they will be given the go-ahead anyway," the group's co-founder Father Tony Flannery, told RTE on Tuesday.