What will it be like going back to the churches once they reopen for private prayer and for worship? The great thing will be, obviously, that we may once again be physically in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; it has been an awfully long time since we could sit quietly on a bench in front of the altar, just in the presence of Christ. That used to be one of the defining things about a Catholic church; they were always open (and if they had to shut for fear of vandalism, it was something strange and alienating) because one consequence of believing in the Real Presence is that there’s a gravitational pull towards the tabernacle where God is present. Chapels and churches without the reserved host may be holy places but they lack that physical presence, which focuses devotion. So we’ll be able to have that again.
But not on the same terms as before. We’ll have to have regulated opening of churches so that people who drop in aren’t exposed to unnecessary risk. So, there may have to be someone present at a church to ensure that people stick to the rules, and to sanitise benches after use. I clean churches sometimes; at the back of my mind I can’t help thinking about the effect on polished benches of endless sanitiser; will it take off the varnish? And how easy will it be to get a roster of volunteers to supervise the opening? Westminster Cathedral will have far fewer problems than a less visited church, which will have to put out a call for volunteers, like churches do when there’s 48-hour devotion before the sacrament. Parishioners will have to take it in turns to stand guard in the church, if we do decide that’s what’s needed. As any parish volunteer will tell you, that means calling on the service of a small number of people to shoulder most of the burden. Usually they’re older parishioners, and therefore the more vulnerable. Perhaps it will be possible to manage without supervision eventually but at the start, someone needs to wipe down the benches after use.
Further, we’ll have to adopt the precautions that were already being taken before the church closures: so, no touching statues, no candles for lighting, no books or booklets for open access and no holy water fonts (that’s rather sad). As Mgr Mark Langham observes elsewhere on this site, Catholicism is a touchy-feely religion; denying us the chance to touch things is a privation, even if a necessary one.
And that’s before we even get to collective worship. Social distancing means we shall have to limit the numbers attending Mass – which will make some parish workers laugh. Turning people away from churches? Previously, it was a tall order to fill them. But in my home parish in Ireland Mass was said for some time during the pandemic, only with tickets issued to 100 people who had to keep their distance; obviously no sign of peace, which will actually be a relief for lots of people. We may all have to go that way; certainly we shouldn’t prioritise online applications, which privileges those with internet access over, say, the homeless. Again, volunteers will have to be on hand to sanitise the benches after use. It would be good if it weren’t just women doing this.
One suggestion for spreading out Mass numbers is for the bishops to make the Sunday obligation flexible – some would fulfil it on other days of the week. That doesn’t quite work, because the cycles of readings for the year are set out Sunday by Sunday; a weekday mass doesn’t fit the bill. Another suggestion from Bishop Mark O’Toole is for outdoor worship, on the sensible grounds that the virus is less likely to be passed on in the open air, where it may disperse more easily. Fine, so long as the weather holds and so long as the parish has the chairs for enough people, and enough volunteers to clean them afterwards. But certainly this is the kind of creative thinking we need to return to Mass and public services. The pandemic has, from this point of view, struck at the right time of year. In Westport parish in Mayo, in Ireland, the priests have set up a confessional with a double perspex divide between priest and penitent, and leather kneelers instead of cloth ones. That may come into fashion more generally. Many priests, remember, belong to those two high risk groups, male and over 65.
For many people, livestreamed Masses have been a godsend, a way of keeping up Mass attendance even in the relaxed environment of your sitting room where the younger members of the family treat anything on screen with something short of devotion. And many parishes, monasteries and friaries have gone to enormous lengths to master the technology. When the pandemic is over, the routine livestreaming of Masses should be the legacy, a way for the housebound to join in a mass at a distance. We must hope that ordinary Catholics who might well attend an actual Mass don’t decide that actually, a livestreamed Mass at home is more agreeable than an actual Mass with a collection and a journey there and back.
So, the new normal is going to be nothing like as agreeable as the old normal. In some parishes, it may not work. To which all one can say is that if we can make supermarkets safe, we can surely do the same for churches. It’s over to the faithful. All those people who clamour for the laity to be given more responsibility now have the satisfaction of knowing that the reopening of churches is largely in our hands.