As a child, my father used to take me and my brothers out for a ride in the car when he came in from work and before we sat down to supper. We would often swing by our parish church on the way home to say a prayer. Thank God the church was always open! For in this way, my father taught me a habit that would later be a great help to me as a teenager: to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, especially when in need or in sadness or when something good had happened.
It was there in the semi-darkness, with the red sanctuary lamp flickering in the distance, that I had my first religious experiences, experiences which led me to deeper friendship with the Lord in prayer and one day to the realisation that He was calling me to the priesthood.
When I was a parish priest, I used to go out of my way to ensure the church was kept open during the day. I would also ask the laity to help with this.
Sadly however, in recent times, many parish churches are being locked shut. In our Diocese, I have been encouraging our priests not to do this because a locked church can deprive the faithful of an opportunity to visit the Lord and to develop their spiritual lives. Obviously, we are talking here of daylight hours, and we need to be prudent with items in the church to avoid giving thieves needless opportunities. Even if there are times when a church has to be closed, it might help if there was a sign near the door saying what the opening hours are.
Our diocesan insurers acknowledge that our churches are places of worship and sanctuary, and that it is important for them to remain open and accessible to all. The insurers do not interfere with or influence the opening hours of our churches, nor does this have an impact on our insurance premiums.
It seems to me strange that Anglican churches are usually open for people to visit, and they are sometimes in very remote places. Yet they have within them items that are far more valuable and historic than many of our Catholic churches!
I fear the reason that many of our churches are locked is out of apathy or a ‘maintenance mentality’. If we were authentic about mission and the desire to evangelise, then we would recognise that our churches are hugely important vehicles for evangelisation, especially for anyone of any faith, practising or not, who wishes for a time of quiet reflection, to say a prayer in a moment of distress or need, to find out information about the Catholic faith or to come close to the Lord. Moreover, research done by the Allister Hardy Research Centre identifies praying alone in a church as a crucial prompt for many to religious experience.
We have in our churches the greatest treasure of all, Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Why on earth would we wish to lock Him away from His people? Indeed, I would go so far as to say we have no right to do this.