Pastoral Reflections

Will Normal Service Ever Be Resumed?

Those of you “of a certain age” may remember the good old days of grainy black and white television and the only choice we had for a long time was to watch the BBC – not even BBC1 or 2, just the one channel BBC.  Technology being not entirely reliable at the time, it wasn’t uncommon for screens to suddenly go blank in the middle of a programme, and after a few moments of uncertainty a notice would usually appear which read “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible” and all you could do was sit and wait. 

Even given the success of the Covid vaccination programme, you can’t help wondering whether “normal service” as we knew it will ever fully resume.  

During the time that we haven’t been allowed to shake hands with people outside of our various social or familial “bubbles”, on the basis that everyone knew why we were being what would otherwise be judged as standoffish or even bad mannered, I never really took up the practice of “bumping” fists, or elbows, or forearms because, first of all, it looks silly and, secondly, it fails to express what shaking hands is all about.  It developed as a sign of peace, a sign that neither person was holding a weapon or at least not one that could be used at handshaking distance.  Move any closer than that and you might be putting your life at risk. 

Culturally we Brits were never a “touchy feely” lot.  A 2016 Center Parcs poll of 2000 adults found that Aberystwyth topped the list of the most hug-friendly places in the UK.  At the other end of the scale Coventry was home to the most “anti-huggers”.  80% of those polled hug their family and 70% hug their friends, while 10% admitted to never hugging anyone!  Three-quarters of people hug others as a sign of affection and half hug one another as a form of greeting or to say goodbye.  Over 50% of Brits prefer to greet someone by simply saying hello with no physical contact, while 20% opt for at least a handshake.  Three years later Covid struck and put an end to all that! 

Contrary to our culture, we had been gradually falling under the influence of our European neighbours and of trans-Atlantic practices and had become increasingly comfortable with hugging others hello and goodbye – or at least people we know.  But then along  came Covid and all of a sudden all of that had to stop and we had to settle back into a no-contact regime with a ban on hugging and even shaking hands.  In church it has been particularly unusual at the “Sign of Peace” to resist what has become almost a habit and not shake hands with the people around us.  Indeed current Covid requirements and restrictions go against everything the Mass is about in terms of gathering together in communal celebration.

Whether intentionally or not, we are in danger of becoming very impersonal as individuals and as a society.  We have had to maintain a social distance at all times between ourselves and others; we step out of the way of others as we approach them in the street; and in general our social lives have been restricted to the point of our becoming almost anti-social, even hermit-like during the various lockdowns.  This has perhaps been one of the more difficult consequences of the pandemic because we are naturally social creatures and having to be necessarily isolated and distanced from others hasn’t been easy for us, but after nearly two years we have become used to it.  How easy will it be for “normal service” to resume once again?

Having mentioned the “no sign of peace” situation, another liturgy-related concern I have is the long-term consequence of currently not being able to receive from the chalice at communion. 

When the practice of receiving from the chalice was introduced after Vatican II, there was understandable concern about the aspect of hygiene, after all we don’t normally all drink from a common ‘cup’.  A lot of people simply wouldn’t receive from the chalice despite everything that was said and done to reassure people and to train ministers of holy communion in how to clean the surfaces of the chalice properly between communicants.  Over time I think the main thing that finally persuaded people was the lack of evidence that infections have been spread by receiving from a common cup – that and reminding people to be considerate of others by not receiving from the chalice if they have colds or sore throats or whatever, just in case.

It therefore hasn’t helped all that has gone before when we were instructed to no longer offer the chalice after the pandemic began.  The obvious thing for people to ask was that if ordinarily the risk of picking up an infection by receiving from the chalice was so insignificant that it hadn’t proved to be a problem, then why was the option of receiving from the chalice withdrawn?  I think we would have to say that the major reason was that this particular virus was far from ordinary and was proving to be extremely infectious and that people were dying from it in large numbers.  It wasn’t essential – certainly under the circumstances – for people to receive from the chalice and therefore safeguarding them by removing that option was, under the circumstances, an obvious measure to take.

That was, of course, just one of a whole raft of measures that were also put in place, not least among them being a limit on numbers at Mass as a result of social distancing and therefore the need to reserve places ahead of time and for the Church to suspend the Sunday obligation given that not everyone who might want to go to Mass would be able to do so.  Even given social distancing and reduced numbers, face masks have to be worn in church.  Hymn books had to be removed because of the problem of common handling.  For obvious reasons holy water stoups were emptied or removed.  Priests were required to take no longer than absolutely necessary in celebrating Mass so that people weren’t gathered for any longer than necessary.  And churches had to be sanitized after every celebration to hopefully eradicate any risk of surface or air borne infection.

Given these and other experiences since the pandemic began, it’s difficult to imagine a time when we might be able to return to doing things the way we used to.  The experts are saying that Covid isn’t going to go away and that we are simply going to have to live with it just as we have learned to live with a lot of other potential diseases and illnesses.  And whilst receiving an annual booster vaccination against Covid, as we do against influenza for example, might help to reduce the risk of catching the virus – or at least not dying from it if we do – we would do well to consider how many things we are simply not going to be able to do in the same way we have in the past because of the threat the virus continues to pose.  There is also the fact that, just as at the moment a considerable number of people are choosing not to be vaccinated despite the risk to themselves and to others, and that we have no idea who they are and therefore what risk they may pose if we let our guard down. 

One consequence of that situation may be that the option of receiving from the chalice won’t be restored, even if other restrictions are removed, because of the on-going risk posed by such a virulent disease and of not knowing who is vaccinated and who isn’t and could be carrying the virus.  In such a situation it would be quite understandable if no one wanted to take the risk of sharing a chalice anyway, nor, surely, would the Church encourage people to do so as it did before the pandemic – in which case it might simply become one post-Vatican II practice that had to be withdrawn despite being in use for so many years and people will simply revert to doing what they always did before Vatican II, and have been doing for nearly two years now anyway, and receive only the host. 

Since Christ is sacramentally present under each of the species [bread and wine], communion under the species of bread alone makes it possible to receive all the fruit of the Eucharistic grace.  But the sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds, since in that form the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly.[1]

On the other hand, who knows, science may yet find a way to eradicate Covid and the threat it currently poses and “normal service” could yet be restored.  We wait to see.

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[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1390.