Term began last Tuesday. Usually it is unmissable: bicycles streaming down the streets bearing students to the new term’s lectures, coffee shops full of earnest discussion, late-night revelries – and in terms of Fisher House, a busy chapel, a library buzzing with life and illicit doughnuts, and a bar serving the fiercest gins in Cambridge.
Not now. The term has begun unremarked, a ripple on the sluggish flow of time under lockdown. I take a daily walk through deserted streets past the forbiddingly bolted doors of colleges, encountering only the occasional jogger or delivery van. The market place, at the centre of Cambridge, retains some life with meat, fish and vegetable stalls still active – but the sellers of hand-crafted pottery, retro-dresses and (alas) impossible-to-find books are all banished. The city is silent.
There is still some novelty to the situation. But poignancy, also. Students who were embarking upon their final term will no longer attend the University, robbed of graduation, May Balls, parties and farewells, important rituals which conclude the intensely-lived and momentous years of undergraduate life. Final-year students are thoughtful about their time at Cambridge, and talk easily of their memories, hopes, and what (and whom) they will miss. As chaplain I face the annual pain of parting: students become part of one’s life, one’s own journey. I accompany them, pray with them, celebrate with and console them, and feel responsibility for them. The conclusion of this richly-lived time in their lives is usually eased by celebration and formality, by the opportunity to exchange thanks and wishes both in conversation and speeches. But not this year. Students have already returned abroad or to parts of this country and will not attend Cambridge again. No exams, no Graduation, no Eurovision party, no summer punting. This is not how it was meant to end.
You can never, though, underestimate the resourcefulness of students. Unable to work in the chaplaincy library, they study together virtually, each their own discipline. The Black Swan Bar (recalling the name of the Tavern whose medieval building Fisher House now occupies) is no longer ringing with laughter and impassioned conversation, but students gather at opening time on a Friday night via Zoom, equipped with a drink, to share mirth and companionship. Along the same lines, following Sunday Mass virtual coffee is offered, while the Graduate Society flies higher with a virtual pub quiz. Students are seeking to humanise this time. While they have their online tutorials and virtual supervisions, and essays are delivered by the internet and examination results will be (somehow) awarded, it is the personal touch, the element of banter and encounter, that are most needed and missed. Students crave the sense of striving and progressing through the stages of learning, usually so clearly delineated by the university term. In some ways, the virtual chaplaincy community is keeping alive that spirit, even if only in expressing a longing for it.
Daily live-streamed Masses have drawn such large numbers and warm comments that it is clear that our chaplaincy community exists at a level deeper than the merely physical. The Fisher House community means more to Cambridge Catholics than chaplaincy buildings. Students (perhaps to the surprise of many older observers) take prayer seriously, and at this time more of them have employed prayer to create and express communion. They pray online a weekly rosary, attend exposition and Benediction, engage in lectio divina and spiritual reading groups, recite the Angelus and mid-day prayer – most of which, it should be noted, are their own initiatives.
We have a few advantages. For some time now we have been broadcasting Sunday Mass to the adjacent hall, owing to large numbers and the need for break-out space for children. The technical infrastructure was in place, and our IT consultant was quickly able to adapt it for public and high-quality broadcasts. Students have the right skills to set up Zoom meetings (perpetually baffling to anyone over 50) or other platforms, and our well-established Facebook page has easily absorbed this new activity. As for content, it has been helpful to publish a term card detailing daily and weekly activities (albeit online) provided for the students, giving them a sense of moment and direction in an otherwise featureless succession of days. It is equally important for me and my colleagues, as the need to prepare for broadcast each day, a sermon, a talk, a suitable wallpaper for my Zoom appearance, provides purpose and a necessary incentive to keep some order to the time.
It is an effort worth making, for the numbers tuning in are remarkable. I find it hard to work out Facebook statistics, but students assure me that almost 500 people tune in to our live-streamed Sunday Mass, far more than usually attend. There are, I think, several reasons for this, chief among which is the need for normality, something that signals that our ordinary routine and the usual touchstones of our week have not vanished completely. The liturgy within the familiar Church or chapel, which continues its functions despite the crisis, is a comfort and a proclamation, continuing to hallow our daily lives. Secondly, people are undoubtedly more reflective at this time. Of course, they have time to be; many are isolated with their thoughts. But we are also re-assessing priorities, and with the clutter of our daily lives cleared away, deeper values present themselves. All of us wonder about the future, about what is going to happen to us, and naturally our thoughts turn to divine assistance.
In addition, some feeling of community is vital, especially in isolation. There is a palpable sense of the Fisher House family gathering, across the globe, sharing comments alongside the action of the Mass – at the sign of peace, pressing the “love” button so that a stream of hearts rises heavenward. We chaplains sense this communion too; one forged not of the Eucharist but the desire for the Eucharist – so that it truly can be called “Eucharistic”.
For our part, as chaplains, ministry through word has become more important. No longer distracted by the noise and traffic of attending Mass, people have ears for what we say. We have to preach well: that is always important in a university setting, where mediocre sentiments and banal truisms will speedily be challenged. But at this time, we cannot avoid reading the scriptures through the experience of those who are listening; the isolated, the sick, the anxious. We have to give people hope – but we also have to challenge them, rouse them, affect them. They need something to chew upon, spiritually, for the day ahead.
So for me, ministry has shifted online. The wit, intelligence, creativity and kindness of students are still evident, but in new ways. They check up on each other, find new ways to interact and learn; they still crave instruction in the faith, and their discussions are as lively and challenging as ever they were. Their faith remains strong, although channelled into new and provisional directions. But the strongest impression of our students has not changed. They represent hope for the future both of our Church and our society. These wonderful young people will accomplish great things – all the greater, because of the testing time they are now facing.
Mgr Mark Langham is the Catholic chaplain at the University of Cambridge
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