Today we can finally say goodbye to the many dreadful covid restrictions that have distanced us from one another and our beloved Church over the past two years.
The announcement by Fr Chris Thomas, General Secretary of The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, means that Mass will once again start to resemble a familiar celebration. The key changes are that there is no longer any need for formal social distancing in churches; hymn books, missals and other worship aids are back; holy water stoups can be refilled; the Prayer for the Faithful and the Sign of Peace are reinstated, and Holy Communion (only the Sacred Host, no wine) will be distributed in the usual place with the faithful approaching the minister in an orderly procession. Singing is being encouraged and parish social activities can resume, as can home and care centre visits for Ministers of Holy Communion and other volunteers.
All of this will still be within the framework of sensible and reasonable Covid measures, such as regular hand sanitising, good ventilation and due care and concern for others.
“Whilst this reduction of restrictions brings about a more normal way of living, the Covid-19 virus is still in circulation,” said Fr Thomas.
“This should be in the mind of those participating in the life of the Church as time goes forward holding in balance the need for personal safety and taking responsibility for that safety … there is still a risk associated with gathering for sustained periods in enclosed spaces and therefore there needs to be continued caution by all against infection.
“This, however, has to be balanced against the need to move forward safely towards a normal lifestyle and these two positions will always be held in tension. This holding in tension is the key to living safely with Covid-19, namely keeping infections from a virus that cannot be eliminated to levels which minimise disruption to people’s lives,” he said.
Whilst this is the best news we could have asked for, many are already pondering what a large-scale return to regular Mass attendance might look like and what impact the interim restrictions might have had on our Church. It’s worth remembering that in the few years immediately before the pandemic, there had been widespread discussion about the reshaping of the Catholic Church in England and Wales in the light of declining numbers, funds and clergy. In several dioceses a painful and controversial process of church closures and parish amalgamations had already begun. This in itself was the culmination of decades of general decline – The 1966 edition of the Official Catholic Directory of England & Wales put Mass attendance at 2.2 million, and it stands currently at around one million. Most predictions anticipate further decline, and a continued shrinkage in visibility and presence of Catholics across England and Wales, with fewer priests being the driver of all concerns.
The two year Covid pandemic certainly hasn’t helped the situation. The prolonged total closure of most of our parish network since April last year, and the effective withdrawal of Catholic rituals with cultural significance such as Baptisms, weddings and funerals has added further to the separation of laity and parish. Online Masses were hailed as a great success, with some larger churches celebrating enviable livestream visitor figures – though a greater understanding of how internet statistics work would have revealed that ‘hits’ and actual people are two very different things.
The truth is that no-one really knows in what form our Catholic Church will emerge from the darkness of the past two years. Most of the predictions so far have been pretty negative, suggesting that even the faltering cultural attachment to the faith has evaporated, a cash crisis brought on by no collections is just around the corner, and young Catholics have simply moved elsewhere. In many media commentaries, there has been back-referencing to a famous 1969 radio broadcast by the then Father Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) in which he was asked what the Church would look like in 2000. His predictions were seen as gloomy, disturbing even. On the one hand Fr Ratzinger spotted astutely that numbers would decline and the historic dominance of the Church over society would diminish.
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much.” He said.
“She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.”
These oft-quoted words are generally accompanied by assumptions that the Catholic Church of the future will have shed its cultural base and will re-emerge as some form of professional membership society where the practice of the faith is a systematic learned programme of adherence rather than the intuitive spirituality of generations past. (In fact Fr Ratzinger suggested nothing of the sort, and what he actually said is highly relevant and well worth reading!).
It’s true that we will emerge from this pandemic as a much smaller Church, but I’m a strong believer that time, progress and the unravelling of history is never linear – just because A has led to B and then C, it doesn’t mean that D must follow. History teaches us that our world is anything but linear, and that progress often occurs after random and unanticipated events, that the world that God has set up for us runs on His rationality, not ours.
It would be foolish to suggest that there won’t be challenges ahead, but most of these are practical – reduced numbers, lack of cash, fewer priests – and there are always solutions to such materialistic problems. The bigger challenge will be rebuilding the spiritual confidence of our Church, and finding for it a new place in a wider secular society that has changed utterly. But to conclude that the world has moved away from the Church is to assume too much – it’s easy to pile up recent social and moral changes in behaviour and attitudes and think that our faith is diminishing, when nothing could be further from the truth.
If anything positive has emerged from the pandemic it is an increasing awareness that faith, spirituality and the social teachings of the Church played a significant role throughout the pandemic (“surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ Matt 28:20). When people felt abandoned, there was always prayer, hope and the helping hand of others – throughout covid there were countless examples of the intrinsic goodness of the human spirit, and we were far from being a society of godless automatons. It is this that the Church needs to build on, and that needs to be the central focus of the Synod we’re currently journeying through. As well as asking candid questions about our internal structures, this Synod is far more about reaching out beyond our parishes to re-evangelise the communities in which we live. It is always said that the Church is at its best when it’s leading society by example, and that is certainly what we should be doing now.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk