We should look at fundamentals rather than practicalities of reopening churches
Can we seize this opportunity for reflection on how we relate to God?
If there is a second surge and the churches cannot be opened for a year, we will have to think differently about how the life of the Church will continue. Photograph: Alan Betson
The prospect of churches reopening for Sunday Masses by July 20th has forced clergy to consider how to make the buildings and the rituals compliant with Government regulations and to ensure the safety of congregations.
It is a daunting task on many levels.
A very high percentage of the clergy and the volunteers in parishes, who might be expected to assist in the efforts, are in the high-risk category. To sustain the effort in the long term will be very challenging. Apart from the practicalities, I am wondering how much time is being given by our leadership to reflecting on some of the pastoral and theological issues involved.
We need to explore some of the good work in the area of evangelisation that is now being done online and see how this can be extended
If there is a second surge and the churches cannot be opened for a year, we will have to think differently about how the life of the Church will continue.
We need to remember that our gathering in the church is not the only way we can sustain the life of Christian faith and practice.
We could also remember that possibly a majority of Catholics in the world cannot access weekly Sunday Eucharist, even if they wanted to.
We might think of the Jewish people who suffered the loss of the Temple in 70 AD. Judaism did not disappear; the people adapted to the new reality and Judaism then became deeply embedded in the life of the family, which has become the principal agent in the transmission of the Jewish faith.
Their loss was permanent, ours is only temporary.
Can we not seize this opportunity for some profound reflection on how we relate to God in significant ways, apart from the sacramental moments, and nurture these so that when we do reassemble on Sundays our celebrations will be richer and more profound?
Several decades ago, the great French Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, wrote: “I could quote a whole series of ancient texts, all saying more or less that if in one country Mass was celebrated for 30 years without preaching and in another there was preaching for 30 years without Mass, people would be more Christian in the country where there was preaching.”
For generations in this country, parish missions, especially the evening sessions, which were primarily preaching occasions without Mass, kept popular faith and piety alive and vibrant.
Vatican II is also emphatic on the preaching of the word as the primary task of the bishop and priest, and the sacraments are but the highest point of that proclamation.
We need to explore some of the good work in the area of evangelisation that is now being done online and see how this can be extended, although there is no substitute for people engaging with one another face to face, side by side, whether in families or other groupings.
We could encourage and better resource people to pray in families. We could encourage and lead people in acts of charity in imaginative and useful ways. These and other possibilities need to be explored.
We have limited much of our Christian identity to attendance at the Sunday liturgy, while neglecting to foster the life of daily prayer, reflection on the scriptures and the works of charity that are at the heart of the life of discipleship.
We are, in any case, facing a situation where in a decade or so Sunday Mass will not be celebrated in every parish
The webcam phenomenon is just another more pronounced aspect of this vicarious activity, where many, but not all, passively watch the priest at prayer. This can further absolve people of the responsibility to pray themselves or with others in a more ordinary or spontaneous way.
I am struck by the fact that the GAA seems to have assumed the charitable outreach in local communities in a more prominent way than ecclesial/parish groups have done. This raises a question about the role or brief of pastoral councils in most parishes. This crisis also raises questions about the how the ministry of the permanent deacons is being exercised.
Perhaps our current anxiety about opening churches is further feeding the superficiality that has characterised much of our practice for too long. I would like to see and to hear more from pastoral ministers on the spirituality that sustains people in crises rather than expending energies on the technicalities of sanitising spaces and crowd management.
We might just be missing an opportunity for profound renewal. It reminds me of how we received the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in Ireland. We did the mechanical things, like reordering sanctuaries, but did not take on board the theology that underpinned the structural alterations and have reaped the harvest of that neglect for decades.
I fear that we are once more attending to the practicalities rather than looking at the fundamentals. We are, in any case, facing a situation where in a decade or so Sunday Mass will not be celebrated in every parish and we will have to start thinking at last about how the life of faith is sustained in such situations.
This crisis might be a good dress rehearsal.