Catholic churches facing the threat of terrorism must keep their doors open

A Muslim man walks past St Therese Church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France, July 27, a day after French priest Father Jacques Hamel was killed (CNS photo/Pascal Rossignol, Reuters)

So, just how worried should we be? The Daily Telegraph carried this article yesterday which deals with the threat of terrorism to British churches, and the things that those in charge of churches can or should do to minimise the risk they face.

The advice, as far as I can see, is sensible. It seems like a good idea to have someone on duty at the main door of a church to keep watch before, during and after services. It certainly seems wise to brief people about what should be done if something untoward occurs. After all, we have fire drills, and fires very rarely happen. So why not have terrorism drills as well?

It is reassuring to know that the likelihood of an attack is judged to be very low; but at the same time it is worrying to hear that if an attack does come, it is more likely to be aimed at a small church in some obscure location, rather than a famous church in London. As Mr Tolson, the expert on these matters says: “It won’t be Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s, it will be a little church in Bolton or Birmingham. It’s the small churches, just like the one in France. You can walk into any church on a Sunday morning and it probably won’t be a gun, it will be a knife.”

He is of course quite right. Terrorists tend to attack soft targets, and they know as well as anyone else that one simply cannot provide round the clock protection to all of Britain’s churches, which number many thousands. And it is precisely small churches with small congregations, like Fr Hamel’s, which will be least able to defend themselves.

Fr Hamel was saying a weekday Mass for a handful of people, all elderly; in the recent attack in Indonesia the attacker was overcome by members of the congregation, which was numerous, as it was a Sunday, and must have contained quite a few strong and young men. Moreover, it is these small parishes which will be hardest pressed to find a volunteer to stand at the door and keep watch during services. These small parishes, don’t forget, are pretty hard pushed to find volunteers for other things as it is.

So, what then is to be done? One thing is certain: as in other countries, where the threat is much higher, the Catholic Church simply cannot give up in the face of the terrorist threat. This means that the mission has to continue, and that entails having churches which are open. It also means that priests, as in the past, must, in normal circumstances, carry on meeting people one to one, even when the people are not known to them. We cannot lock our buildings or lock ourselves away. In countries where priests face the constant risk of violent crime – Kenya sadly springs to mind, but there are many worse places – priests still go out, and still take risks. They have to. And as in Kenya and elsewhere, so in Britain.

The other thing to be done is this: congregations need to be made aware that security is the responsibility of all the people in the congregation. So, we all need to be reasonably aware of risk, we all need to know what to do if something happens, and we all – not just the person on the door – need to be able to take action where necessary, as that congregation in Indonesia did.

There is a theological side to this as well, very much in keeping with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The Church is not just a building, or the priest – the Church is all of us. So we all need to play our part.

Finally, we need to be clear that nothing is risk free and there is no growth without risk. We take a risk when going to Church, and that risk-taking is part of our evangelisation. Yes, there is risk; but let there also be confidence in the Lord, who founded the Church and gave it the guarantee that it would not fail. The Church will be here long after ISIS is in the dustbin of history. Let’s not be afraid. As someone once said: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Nolite timere!