I clearly recall, at the start of the pandemic, going to Mass in the Cathedral. It was to be the final public Mass within the Diocese and this had been announced beforehand. I suspect everyone’s emotions were already running high for this reason and also because at that time, we didn’t know what lay ahead. We had no idea what very real effects the pandemic was about to have upon the practice of the Faith, but we would soon find out.
This final Mass stood out for another reason also – the Bishop had granted permission for the Priest to offer a General Absolution to those present. It is the only time I have ever received a General Absolution and other than being on a crashing aeroplane or a sinking boat, I don’t expect to receive another.
The Mass that evening was timed to end just before 8pm, at which time the Holy Father in Rome would begin praying a public Rosary in the Vatican. He was to be joined in this by numerous parishes throughout the world. Almost all of those at the Mass in the Cathedral stayed on and so at the appointed time, the Priest began to pray the Rosary. I am certain we all felt a profound sense of unity – with the Holy Father, with all those parishes scattered across the nations who were doing the same thing and, indeed, with the entire Church. This, too, greatly heightened the sense of emotion.
That evening was indeed the end of an era. It was also the beginning of a new era, one which has not yet reached it’s conclusion.
Beginning a couple of days later and then for some months afterwards, we were not able to publicly practice the Faith in the way we had been used to doing. Initially, the Churches had remained opened for private prayer only, but without any public services; but this lasted only a short while, before full lockdown hit and the Churches were closed and locked and we had no access to them whatsoever. This was an incredibly difficult thing for anyone who practised their Faith out of anything more than habit. Every Sunday was a dark reminder of the times we were living in. Worst of all, there was no Church celebration of Easter, the holiest period of the Christian Faith. No Good Friday, no Holy Saturday, and no Easter Sunday.
And unfortunately for those who lost loved ones at that time, a full Catholic funeral Mass was impossible – at best, a handful of close family were allowed at the graveside, where brief rites took place. I am sure that the effects of this particular hardship will remain with those families for a great many years to come.
Further to this, there was no access to the other Sacraments – and in particular, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
One good thing about all this was that a number of parishes began to live-stream Masses and other services and this was a good way for parishioners to remain in touch and to feel ‘connected’ to their Church even in some small way. Increasingly, however, we realised that while this was a ‘stop-gap’ of sorts, it did not in any real way compare to being in Church and amongst the faith community – our Faith is a community of believers, after all, and that live-streaming perhaps emphasised what we were all missing even as it reminded us of what we shared.
Months later, the Churches were able to re-open at last – albeit with quite severe restrictions in place. Suddenly we found that we had to book a place in order to attend Mass, and there were very few places available as limits had been imposed on how many could be present in the Churches. The Mass itself was shortened considerably and some of the communal aspects were removed – there was no singing, for example. And the order had changed, so that receiving Holy Communion now took place at the very end of the Mass, after which the recipient immediately left the Church – it was no longer possible to sit quietly to make thanksgiving.
For a great many people, there is still no possibility of returning to Mass because of age or other vulnerability – worst of all, these people are perhaps the very ones to whom the Mass means a great deal, and whose habit has been to attend daily. And while the Bishops gently remind us that a dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains in place, I can only imagine how difficult all of this remains for those people. I wonder, too, how many of those who have not been to Church in all these months – for whatever reason – return once able to do so.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is still with us and the infections rates and subsequent hospital admissions – and deaths – are rising again in a frightening way; this leaves the concern that further restrictions on the celebration of Faith may return at some point in the near future.
In various places, some of the Bishops are railing against the possible imposition of any further restrictions. Whilst this is within their right, I think it also needs to be balanced against the greater good of the community, bearing in mind that we remain in the clutches of a global pandemic which has already seen more than 35 million infections and over one million deaths globally. This is not just about our right to practise the Faith publicly – it is about a serious health emergency which continues to threaten the entire human family whilst also killing so many in the most vulnerable populations. These two considerations create a real tension.
Only time will tell where this leads us ultimately and whether or not it brings about any changes which lasts longer than the pandemic itself.
But what is already clear is that we can no longer take anything – not even the public practice of our Faith – for granted.