For several days now, I have been thinking about how best to write this piece. It follows the most recent closure of the Churches and other places of worship in Scotland and from the various discussions which have followed this, especially those discussions which appeared after the publication of a letter from the Bishops Conference of Scotland.
The Bishops’ letter raised a number of important issues – notably for me, the apparent inequity of closing places of worship whilst keeping certain other places open; and the spiritual need which people have to express their faith in a communal setting – and in the case of the Catholic Churches across Scotland, places where the adherence to the current rules is (and has consistently been) very high indeed. It was also noted in the letter that the situation is different in England – and this is certainly true; but then, England is a different nation, subject to different rules. And, so far at least, I have heard no-one – in the Church or elsewhere – suggesting we should abandon our Government in order to follow all the advice of the UK Government.
The discussions which were generated after the notice from the Scottish Government regarding the closure of the Churches and other places of worship were fairly predictable. One group lauded the need to do so in favour of doing everything possible to maintain public health at the broadest possible level; another group bemoaned the loss of their ‘right to worship’, seeming to forget that we are Catholic every day and not just on Sundays or whilst actually within a Catholic Church; and also forgetting that along with the Churches, many other places were also ordered to close.
No matter how it was presented by some, this was never an assault on the freedom to worship; it was a public health measure introduced at the worst point of a global health pandemic which has killed thousands of people in this country alone – just in the last 24 hours, a further 93 people have died in Scotland and 1,325 across the United Kingdom. While the Letter noted that no specific evidence regarding virus transmission in Church had been presented to justify the decision of the Government, this seemed to miss the point altogether; right now, time is of the essence as the numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths are rising astronomically at present – as every single daily Government briefing has made abundantly clear. This is the time to act, not to discuss – people are dying in ever greater numbers.
Of course, there are no easy answers to these difficult questions; and there are not necessarily any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ responses. Each of us will have our own views. Each perpsective is as personal and as valid as each opposing perspective.
Regardless of our views and opinions in these debates and arguments, the practice of the Faith is clearly – and rightly – deeply important to people and that is a good and beautiful thing. The trouble is, the various arguments in themselves tend to generate division – and this is the last thing we need.
I saw a lot of comments – all from Catholics – which pitted one against the other and some of which were greatly lacking in charity. It shouldn’t be like this. We all need to work together. And as Catholics, especially, we should both know better and do better, the heated emotions of the moment and of the debate notwithstanding.
A further letter was published today, written by Bishop Joseph Toal of the Diocese of Motherwell. Like a similar letter published by Bishop Toal last year in the earlier stage of the pandemic, this one strikes a very fatherly note – I found it to be considered, very pastoral and helpful. The full text of the Letter is reproduced below –
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I hope this finds you well and safe at this very difficult time. I offer my prayerful support for all who are ill, and for those adversely affected by the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives.
As we are well aware, the gravity of the threat posed by the more rapid spread of the virus in recent weeks led to the Scottish Government introducing a law telling us all to stay at home unless we have an essential reason for leaving our homes. My understanding of the need for such a law is the severity of the situation we are in and the resulting need to limit moments of physical social contact with one another as much as possible. Presented with this reality, it is right to assess whether we should gather together for services of public worship and my judgement as a Catholic Bishop is that we should not gather for Mass or other public services while we are required by law to stay at home for our own safety and that of other people. I recognise though that there will be critical moments during this extraordinary period for some people to leave their houses and gather in a church for an essential reason, most notably, but perhaps not exclusively, for the Funeral Mass of a loved one.
The Scottish Government, as well as requiring us to stay at home, has mandated that places of worship be closed, apart from services for the celebration of marriages and funerals. It is argued by some that the Government should not have imposed this regulation on religious bodies, and the Scottish Catholic Bishops have expressed this view, and it does feel that the Churches and others could have made this decision ourselves in a spirit of cooperation and understanding with the Government in the face of the difficulties we face. Although some do object, I think the majority of Catholics in the Diocese of Motherwell, both lay faithful and clergy, agree that we would accept the closure of our churches for our regular acts of worship as a necessary consequence of being required to stay at home. There is a sacrifice in this, and a loss of the spiritual benefit and consolation we experience particularly in the Celebration of the Eucharist, but it has to be recognised that the previous limits in numbers at our services have restricted attendance and some have not felt able to return to church despite the precautions in place. The present closure of our churches means we all share in the gravity of our present vulnerability and have to rely on our personal and family resources of faith, which are often deeper than we realise, and the enhanced offering of on-line and audio services which our parishes have learned to facilitate in recent times. We can still receive much spiritual sustenance, and our prayer-life and our communion with the Lord, and with one another in his Body, should continue and perhaps grow in depths as we seek the Lord’s help and the intercession of Mary and the Saints in our present need.
I and the clergy of the Diocese offer our prayers and support to you through our continued celebration of Mass, which we have the great privilege of offering daily. We hope and pray that the present physical separation may not be prolonged, and that we may return in due course to the normal liturgical, sacramental and social life in our parishes with renewed spiritual vigour and hope in the Lord’s goodness, and in our compassion for one another and those most in need.
With my prayers and best wishes,
Yours in Christ,
+ Joseph Toal
In my opinion, the Bishop rightly identifies the severity of the situation we presently find ourselves in – and the associated great risk of viral transmission in any place where people come together, whether that is a Church or anywhere else. With this is mind, I completely agree with Bishop Toal that there is a need for the Churches to be closed for the moment, even though this is not something we want to happen. I think he is right, too, to remind us of our ability to make a sacrifice, especially when it reminds us that we are part of the human family as well as the Catholic family.
Bishop Toal reminds us of something else – that our first place of worship as Catholics is within the home, the ‘domestic Church’. I wrote about this previously, in a piece called ‘Pandemic and Prayer’ – it reminded us of the options we have to make our homes into little churches, mindful that the Lord is present there as well as in the great Cathedrals, even if not Sacramentally present. As Bishop Toal mentions, our faith resources are often deeper than we realise.
Like so very many others, I am desperate for all this to be over – for the Churches to be not only open, but without the restrictions on numbers and with the associated requirements we have become accustomed to, albeit reluctantly. I cannot express in words how intensely I felt the loss of the Holy Week and Easter services last year, in comparison to which the loss of Christmas services seemed to pale, for me at least. Confessions have had to be planned with something approaching military precision for so many months now. The loss of the ability to simply pop into Church for a little while to adore the Lord is something I cannot describe. Yes, for me personally – as, no doubt, for you reading this – it has been a real test; it has been a test of my patience, humility, charity and forbearance. But never at any moment, thank God, has it been a test of my faith. Not once. It has been a time of deep prayer and of a great many graces in the midst of so many of the trials we have all faced – that seems to be how the Lord often works; trial and grace go hand in hand.
With the entire Catholic community of my Diocese and my nation, I pray for an end to this terrible pandemic, and for those who have died or been touched so deeply by what this virus has brought in it’s wake. I pray that one day very soon, our Church doors are opened wide and we are all welcomed back without any restrictions.
But until that day comes, I will do as I am asked to do, for the greater good of the entire community, nation and world.