Christmas celebrations this year will, thank God, be very different from the last. Ordinary life has for the most part resumed in Britain; in some respects, churches lag behind other parts of society in returning to normal. Many parish churches still require masks, social distancing, taped-off pews and thus limit the size of congregations. Others have not yet returned to the number of Masses they offered before the pandemic. This may be on account of the age of parishioners and priests, but it means that churches present a very different aspect to many Mass-goers than other areas of life – offices, shops, restaurants and museums.
In some cases, parishioners may well wonder whether the pandemic has become an excuse for parishes to limit their Masses and their activities. Certainly in the case of the distribution of religious papers at the back of churches, a number of priests and administrators have invoked the pandemic as a reason not to return to offering copies for sale as was previously the norm. This is ridiculous. The Catholic Herald and the Tablet are not sources of infection; besides, nowadays people can use contactless methods of payment. Parishes are suffering from a dearth of leadership; it is for parish priests to insist that parishioners have access to the Catholic press which they might otherwise not encounter.
The Bishops’ Conference cannot be blamed for this unholy lack of spiritual ambition. They are an administrative body acting on the instructions of the bishops. Parishes, meanwhile, operate independently. Some are reluctant to take instruction from their own bishops. This has created a crisis of leadership at the local parish level with responsibilities sub-contracted out to lay staff. While many cathedrals and larger churches are resuming most of their former activities, others are less active, lacking any urgency about making up the ground lost in the pandemic. Back then, doors were closed to the public when churches could have been places of prayer and peace in a time of crisis. When priests were needed, they were only available online. Religion is in part a habit, and the habit of religion was, and is, for many people lost.
This was certainly true in England; in Ireland, government indifference to, or hostility to, churches, meant that the state prevented people returning to church long after it was necessary. But even now, some parish centres in Ireland are closed on the grounds of health and safety, or the protection of the unvaccinated; sometimes, churches must ask themselves, what – who – are their buildings for? If the Church took seriously the salvation of souls it would seize every opportunity to resume worship and pastoral work while continuing to take government advice about preventing transmission.
In a fascinating column for this paper, Professor Stephen Bullivant reveals that Mass attendance statistics from one anonymous diocese suggest the numbers attending Mass fell by an average of 40 per cent from before to after the pandemic – the figures were collated in October. But what is notable is that two parishes actually gained attendance over that period by 10 per cent, from around 300 at Mass pre-pandemic. By contrast, some parishes saw attendance fall by 60 per cent, a drastic reduction.
This tells us what we instinctively already know, that the work of individual priests and pastors can make all the difference in attracting people to Mass. People recognise their faith and commitment, and respond accordingly. This reality should be taken to heart by anyone who thinks that somehow the downward trajectory in church attendance is inevitable and irreversible. It is not. But parishes will have to make an especial effort to restore the habit of churchgoing; it is one thing for the bishops to restore the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, quite another for people to return. Christmas is a good time to start, by celebrating the services of Christmas with the beauty that the feast of Christ’s birth calls for. If there is an opportunity to reverse the pandemic trend of absenteeism from church, this is it.
This Christmas, then, we hope that parishes will hold as many services as possible to celebrate the coming of the Lord. Last year, attendance was rationed; this Christmas, there is no excuse. Who knows, some parishes and cathedrals may even allow people to sing carols. And we certainly hope this fine edition of the Catholic Herald will be available to buy on the way out of Christmas Mass.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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