Ireland’s primate has called on the government to not put commercial interests over the right to worship when it lifts COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

The Republic of Ireland won’t lift its Level 5 restrictions – a full lockdown with people urged to stay at home – until April 5 at the earliest; however, public worship won’t be allowed until the country reaches Level 2, when many businesses will have already been allowed to reopen.

“The planned exit from the current severe restrictions is being watched by many citizens who expect their religious practice to be respected by the public authorities, and not be subordinated to commercial interests,” said Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin, the Primate of Ireland.

“Health, as we discover again and again, is not just a matter of avoiding disease, it is a matter of how we are in ourselves, it involves our emotions and our mental health,” he said during his St. Patrick’s Day Mass.

The archbishop noted that the right to public worship is protected by the constitution of Ireland, and therefore “easing restrictions on worship has a better-founded statutory claim than other activities which may be pressed by powerful commercial interests.”

He added the number of people “who are allowed to worship cannot be randomly determined as if [it] were some mathematical formula.”

Farrell said the Catholic Church has over the past year exercised their “civic and moral duty” in observing public health guidelines, and when public worship has been allowed, has been “diligent” in keeping worship safe.

“Parishes have developed innovative ways to support communities and the most vulnerable through streaming of services, using social media groups, and by telephone contact with the isolated and vulnerable. For many people, being denied the opportunity to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion has been difficult: It has affected how they are nourished and sustained by their faith.  Let us not underestimate the consequences of this in people’s lives,” the archbishop said.

“Worship has a clear human priority over other activities that do not possess that priority of themselves,” he continued.

“In particular, the restriction on attendance at funerals to 10 people is harsh and unfair. Close family members are frequently denied the right to be present in Church at the funeral of their loved ones: At times, people who have been with the deceased for years. This is tolerable only in the most extreme circumstances, and for the shortest possible period,” Farrell said.

“As a matter of human dignity and fairness — but even more so as matter of wellbeing and the restoration of normality, I call on the public authorities to give assurance that the legitimate desire of people to gather responsibly and within reasonable guidelines to exercise their constitutional right to worship will be prioritized in the easing of restrictions,” he said.

Farrell’s comments came as Northern Ireland’s bishops announced “a cautious return to public worship” from March 26, in time for the celebration of Holy Week and Easter.

Religious leaders from the major denominations in Northern Ireland voluntarily suspended public worship in January after consultations with the civil authorities.

“In making this announcement, made possible through the collective and heroic effort of so many in our society in their response to the current pandemic, especially our health care workers, the bishops emphasize the need for continued caution and a rigorous application of all mitigations and safeguards required to ensure the safest possible return to public worship in our churches,” the Northern bishops said in a statement.

The Republic of Ireland has been lagging behind the North in vaccinations against the COVID-19 coronavirus. As of March 13, 451,589 people had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the Republic, which has a population of 4.9 million. Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.8 million, had vaccinated 629,461.