A PARISH priest in Dumbarton has told how restrictions imposed by social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has been “a great source of pain” for worshippers.

Father Vincent Toal, priest at St Michael’s in Cardross Road, says the closure of the church for public prayer and the celebration of the Sacraments has been felt as a real deprivation among the parishioners.

He was speaking after the Catholic Church announced that the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland had formed a Covid-19 Working Group, to examine how best to meet the long-term pastoral needs of the Catholic community during the pandemic.

It will be chaired by Bishop Brian McGee, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, who said the group recognised that parish life could not return to normal until a vaccine or a treatment is available.

He added: “We do not expect this to happen until at least 2021. It means, that even when churches reopen, parish activities will still be greatly restricted.

“Our pastoral working group hopes to identify and publicise advice or resources to help dioceses and parishes face fresh challenges in a safe manner.”

Fr Toal said the fact that they had been unable to celebrate Easter highlighted the sacrifice worshippers had been asked to make.

He added: “Both last Sunday and this, the church would have been packed as some of our younger parishioners made their First Holy Communion.

“These are days of great festivity which whole families anticipate months in advance – many have expressed their regret at missing out.

“The same is true for baptisms and marriages which have been put on hold.”

A visit to St Michael’s Primary School by Archbishop Philip Tartaglia to confirm many of the children in P7 had also been cancelled.

He added that over the past two months, a number of devoted parishioners had died – and they not been able to host their funeral rites in the customary manner.

Fr Toal added: “That’s been a source of regret, as families are deprived of the comfort and strength gained from friends and neighbours coming together to pray and give expression to their faith in God’s promise of eternal life.

“The simple fact that we are unable to offer grieving relatives a handshake or a hug is also a source of pain.

“This extends also to visits to the sick and housebound which have been considerably restricted, and outreach to families in need of spiritual or physical support.”

Fr Toal’s comments were echoed by Fr Gerard Conroy of St Patrick’s Church, in Strathleven Place, who said “social distancing” was something that did not come naturally to humans who often needed the comfort of a hug or handshake.

He said: “It is natural for grandparents to want to hug their grandchildren and heartbreaking when the current restrictions prevent this.”

He added social distancing was also having a detrimental effect on some people’s mental health – something that should be given more priority by the government.

St Patrick’s has a live webcam for parishioners to view services from home.