Diary of a Limerick priest: Canon Donal McNamara

'Working for the Lord doesn’t pay much but the retirement plan is out of this world' - Canon Donal McNamara

In our latest Diary of a Limerick Priest, Canon Donal McNamara, writes about his life in lockdown 

On March 7, Bishop Brendan Leahy administered the sacrament of confirmation to the boys and girls of Thomond Primary School here in St Munchin’s Parish and I distinctly remember him saying afterwards, referring to the coronavirus, “I don’t know how long more I will be able or allowed to continue administering the sacrament of confirmation”. 

As quickly as the following week, all churches were closed. 

I’m forty seven years ordained this June and I can honestly say, I’ve been extremely fulfilled in my priesthood. I’ve spent all those years in the Limerick Diocese and have been fortunate to have had both good health, excellent parish appointments and encountered wonderful people on my journey. 

During that time, without doubt, the church has encountered much change and extreme turbulence, something that I had never anticipated or was prepared for, most of which was self-inflicted and that has left an indelible mark, on the people and the church at large. 

Over the last nine weeks, I’ve experienced something that I’ve never experienced before in my priesthood, and that is, not being able to interact or communicate with people the way we’ve always done.

I like to think of myself as being a people person and enjoy people’s company. Over the last nine weeks our only means of communication with the outside world has been with the aid of information technology - and wouldn’t we have been lost without it. 

I have been one of the cocooned and yes, that has been challenging. I’ve always liked to try and keep myself reasonably fit and that has been difficult, but I have exercised every day one way or another. I’ve become very much aware that I am one of the “senior citizens” and in fact, never was I more aware than over the last nine weeks when the over 70s were talked about so much.

When we were given the freedom of 5 km, I heard a lady being interviewed on radio saying, that the “elderly” should really only be allowed out Monday to Friday and at a specific time, so that the weekends would be kept available for families. That’s when I became very much aware that yes, I was one of the elderly cocooned! 

I realised from early on that I needed to have some structure to my day, and that I have. Our churches and our schools were closed, we can neither visit the sick, the hospital, the housebound, we are unable to administer any of the sacraments, or even go out for lunch, so the only means of communication is on the phone, texting, emailing, whatsapp, zoom conferences, and in relation to them, I was normally one of the last to get into the conference because of my IT inefficiencies!

Yes, It’s a wonderful means of communication, particularly during this lockdown, and from our perspective, it enables bishop and priests to meet, to inform and to plan and it has proved very successful. 

I’ve spent a lot of my time dealing with wedding cancellations and enabling couples to reschedule for next year or whenever. Where St Munchins is a very busy parish for funerals, none of which have taken place in the church over the last seven weeks, and baptisms are put on hold. Yes, it’s all very strange and uncertain, but it is what it is and we have to cope as best we can.

First communions were scheduled for Saturday May 16 and the teachers and parents, as always do trojan work in preparing for that great parish occasion. Mass was streamed on line to the homes of the first communicants. 

However, we live in hope, yes, it will improve, and life will take on a new meaning. 

I remember coming across a saying that went, “the priest whose too busy to pray, is too busy” I can honestly say, I was one of those. It’s one thing I’ve found over the last nine weeks or so, that my prayer life has taken on a new meaning. 

I did all of the Easter ceremonies behind closed doors with the parish clerks and a video recorder. They were all streamed as is my daily Mass, and for the month of May, the rosary each day at noon. Many parishioners and further afield have the link and love to tune in to their daily Mass.

The other week, at the request of a family, I streamed Mass for a lady who was celebrating her 100th birthday in Milford Care Centre where she saw it on screen accompanied by the wonderful staff of Milford and her family from elsewhere, even as far away as Dubai. A great celebration was had, albeit from a distance. 

Reflecting back over my 47 years of priesthood, without doubt, there were many aspects of it that we were never prepared for while in the seminary and one such aspect, was total lockdown, nor was anyone ever prepared for such an experience? 

I have a motto in my house which reads, “Working for the Lord doesn’t pay much, but the retirement plan is out of this world”! Now, I’m not planning on discussing the retirement plan as yet, but just to say that much good has emerged and will continue to do so from this lockdown. The good will of the people has been commendable.

The assistance given in every way has been unbelievable. People have been so supportive, considerate and generous with their time, food and generosity, constantly phoning, texting and emailing to make certain that I have all I need and of course the occasional funny whatsapp! 

I have no doubt, but that where there will be a lot of hardship, challenges, changes and unprecedented experiences in so many different ways when this eases up and in the years ahead, yes, they will have to be addressed and dealt with appropriately, but there will also be many positives and goodwill, as has been born out during this pandemic.