On the walk to my mother’s house there is a handwritten sign on a gate that reads “Happy Easter! Jesus is risen from the dead!” It doesn’t belong to a church, just a perfectly normal suburban home, and I doubt you’d have seen something like it before the pandemic.
Perhaps the coronavirus will lead to the revival of a sort of folk religion. When Boris Johnson fell ill it was striking how many people said they were praying for him, and I sense, as a religious commentator, that I’m more read and listened to than ever. I was on Question Time just as Covid-19 hit and I said that from a Christian perspective, it was “a test of moral values”. Afterwards, I asked my fellow guests if they thought I’d gone too far. Margaret Beckett said she liked it. Fiona Bruce thought that in the 14 months she’d hosted the show, this was the first time anyone had brought up God.
The West was supposed to be over the Almighty, but He never goes away. In fact, the hyper-rationalist response to the coronavirus has been a washout. China’s atheist dictatorship mucked things up; the science has been confused and contradictory. Thank heavens for modern technology that can save lives in hospital or 3D-print medical gear at home; but our strategy of “lock everyone up” isn’t far removed from the Middle Ages. All we’re really doing is waiting for a vaccine to appear or the virus to go away. You might as well get on your knees.
Nothing else offers hope like religion does; nothing else comes close to giving answers. And it gives us the language to express our feelings. Did people literally pray for Boris? Well, what is prayer anyway? I can close my eyes and make an effort and find nothing to say – or be sitting in the bath, listening to Radio 3, and suddenly strike up the most marvellous conversation with my creator. But, whatever it is, the word “pray” conveys a meaning deeper than “I’ll think about you”: it implies contemplation, supplication and action. It’s a will to effect change through a conversation with God.
So the rational mind reaches out for spiritual support, and where is the Catholic Church? I’m sad to say our doors are shut, with the result that if anyone does want to pray, they’ll have to do it at home. Faith has been privatised, reduced to the domestic sphere; most importantly, we cannot pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, let alone receive it. And the acquiescence of the hierarchy in this decision puts the claim that the Church is a “field hospital” in doubt, because if we ever needed such a thing, this was the moment.
That’s a little harsh, I know. Sorry. The reality is that priests have still been anointing the sick, organising food banks, speaking with parishioners and praying as hard as ever. The Mass has not stopped.
As clergy balance their cameras on a tripod and broadcast online – so often at an angle, occasionally upside down – I actually see two surprising benefits from the lockdown. One is pedagogical.
Clerics have started filming prayers and lectures to explain the faith. Shortly before writing this, for example, I thoroughly enjoyed a talk put up by the Norbertines of Chelmsford on their Facebook page. It was far better than a lot of what you get on the BBC.
The second win is devotional. Since Vatican II we’ve reorientated the Mass (quite literally) away from reverential sacrifice ad orientem and towards a celebration of the community. Well, now the community isn’t there to participate, so it’s a great opportunity for us to sit at home, probably in silence, and simply watch the priest do the thing they were trained to do. It’s also a chance to experiment: I’ve seen Latin, sacramental music and solemnity, and I hope viewers like what they see and that these things stick.
Being prevented from attending the Mass has brought home what makes it so special, that it’s not just bread and wine on the altar but the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Mass is not only beautiful but necessary, and it makes Catholicism not only worth living for – for the day when we shall be reunited in church – but worth dying for, too.
As the sign on the gate says, the great promise of Christianity is that we don’t have to worry so much. Jesus’s resurrection defeated death. It holds no dominion over us. I obey the temporal authorities and their lockdown because I want to do the right thing and I don’t want to hurt others by spreading the virus but, honestly, I am not afraid for myself. There’s a better life yet to come.