Catholic Church faces challenges as places of worship reopen

Church is still living off a legacy of being a much stronger cultural force

The funeral of John Hume at St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry. Photograph: Stephen Latimer/Getty Images

John Hume’s beautiful, dignified funeral demonstrated how empty churches have to be during this time of pandemic. St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry would in normal times have been standing room only, with thousands more outside. The Hume family, led by the indomitable Pat, John Hume’s wife, wanted to prioritise public health and their wishes were respected.

When churches reopened for public worship at the end of June, it was far from clear how it would work.  In many parishes, finding volunteers, organising social distancing, displaying signage, installing hand sanitisers and planning cleaning rotas was very challenging. Many parishes have volunteer stewards. Others have gone further and asked parishioners to book online or at least via the parish office. Some smaller country churches have divided up the local area in a manner akin to the old station masses so that people from a particular set of townlands attend on one Sunday of the month.

The consensus is that the return has gone relatively smoothly.  The stewards who  thought of themselves primarily as facilitating people’s health and safety find themselves also acting in a much more pastoral capacity, welcoming and greeting people, a really helpful development. Funerals, however, are very difficult under the new conditions.

Moreover, some churches are now having to turn people away, a deeply uncomfortable situation. Others are not close to filling the greatly reduced capacity of their churches. Some are worried in particular about the absence of young families.

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One priest friend of mine told me about meeting a family who had cycled to the church to light candles but who had not yet ventured back to Mass. They did not want their children to get out of the habit of going to the church and so were visiting regularly. A combination of worrying about how their smaller children would behave and fear of Covid-19 was keeping them away from Mass itself. Fear may be inhibiting many young families, and indeed, more vulnerable older people, despite the fact that churches are vigorously enforcing public-health standards. Others will have lost the habit and may never return.

Innovation

In general, the church coped well during the lockdown, making innovative use of the internet not just to livestream mass but many other spiritual resources, not to mention funerals and even the occasional wedding.

The Redemptorists in Limerick had between 3,000 and 4,000 tuning into their weekday masses and sometimes twice or three times as many on Sunday. The online attendance for their novena was through the roof, with about 45,000 viewing for a substantial amount of time. Similarly, the Redemptorists in Clonard Monastery in Belfast, which was home to John Hume's friend and fellow peace activist Fr Alec Reid for nearly 40 years, had 56,000 online one Friday during their novena.

Families who never prayed together at home previously gathered to watch mass during the lockdown. What might be called the household church underwent a resurgence. A Mater Dei survey found that nearly double the number who attend Mass regularly attended services online. One of the challenges for the church is to link those household churches back into the messy but vital wider community.

In his Reek Sunday homily after the cancellation of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, Archbishop Michael Neary described our lives moving from times of "orientation to disorientation or dislocation and on to a new orientation". Covid-19 has been a time of disorientation, which has highlighted the many challenges facing the church, but it is still unclear what the new orientation will be.

The most obvious problem is an ageing clergy but it may not be the most fundamental problem. In Limerick, so many of the clergy were cocooning during lockdown that between 40 and 45 priests were providing sick calls, funerals and online liturgies for some 60 parishes. The lockdown presented a glimpse of the future where many parishes will not have a resident priest.

But if vocations come from communities, the lack of vocations exposes the weakness of our faith communities. That is a much bigger problem.

Hostile forces

Currently, the church is still living off a legacy of being a much stronger cultural force. The question is what it means to be a Catholic in an Ireland where the strong cultural forces are now actively hostile to many central Christian teachings.

The flippant answer is that the challenge has not changed since the description in the Acts of the Apostles: faithfulness to the teachings of the apostles, to prayer, to the breaking of bread and to the service of the poor. Given that the apostles faced potential torture and death, it may not seem that challenging to face being cancelled or fired for holding orthodox Christian views, but Irish Catholics are out of practice when it comes to making sacrifices for their faith.

Being minority Catholics in Northern Ireland forged people like John Hume and Séamus Mallon into formidable advocates for peace. What is being a minority in the Republic leading to? Passivity? Despair? Or new dynamism?

The most valuable effect of the pandemic may be to accelerate the realisation that for the church the past is a different country which will never be on a green list again.