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Do you remember Easter this year?  No, neither do I – or at least not in the way I would have liked to remember it.  Let me refresh your memory. 

Ash Wednesday was on February 26th and at that point we had no idea what we were in for.  We celebrated the first three weeks of Lent as usual, but on March 20th the country went into lockdown and our churches had to close.  After a few days of being uncertain exactly how to respond to the situation, in our parish we began video recording Sunday Mass (because at that time my broadband signal wouldn’t extend into church) and then uploading it to the internet for people to watch if they wanted to and if they had access.  By March 31st we had the means to live-stream Mass directly to the internet and so I then began celebrating daily Mass from my house.

Less than a week later, April 5th, was Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week.  I had, of course, already purchased palms but they were never used because there was no public Mass.  On Holy Thursday I celebrated a simplified “Mass of the Lord’s Supper” in keeping with the simplified situation of celebrating Mass from my house – although there was something particularly symbolic about being “gathered together” (albeit virtually) around my dining room table to commemorate the Last Supper celebrated around a dining table, but the sadness, of course, was the fact of people not being able to receive holy communion when we were commemorating the institution of the Eucharist. 

Good Friday’s celebration of “The Passion of Our Lord” wasn’t easily simplified and so I left people to keep the day themselves in whatever appropriate way they chose, though hopefully based around their reading of The Passion.  On the Saturday, with the figures of the Risen Christ and of Mary

Magdalene from our Easter garden as a backdrop, I celebrated a simplified “Easter Vigil”.  There was also Mass on Easter Sunday morning.  Because we hadn’t been able to celebrate the Triduum and Easter on the usual scale – whether visually or liturgically – it would be understandable if they didn’t make quite the same impression, but hopefully we did the best we could under the circumstances.  (Since then, of course, we have resolved the broadband problem and now live-stream Mass from church.)  

I mention all of this because, of course, we will soon be experiencing the same situation with Christmas given that, realistically, the restrictions of even a partial lockdown will almost certainly still be in place.  There are going to be two basic problems – one that we can do nothing about, and the other that we really do need to do something about.  Let’s take the last one first because in many respects it is most easily dealt with.

Every year our preparations for Christmas are swamped by a vast wave of commercialization – it doesn’t have to be, but it gets increasingly difficult to fight against it.  This year could be even more difficult because of the restrictions the coronavirus will place on our usual spiritual practices, and in light of that we will have to work even harder to make sure we don’t lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas.  Because attendance at our eucharistic celebrations will have to be restricted for social distancing reasons, and because a lot of people are still understandably cautious about public gatherings anyway, what are we going to do to make sure the spiritual celebration of Christmas is given the priority that it should have?  If we don’t make that effort then the danger is that when the dust finally settles, all we will remember of Christmas is the shopping and the feasting.  With that in mind, perhaps one of the first things we can do is ensure that all the Christmas cards we send this year (regardless of who we are sending them to) are of a religious design so that we are witnessing to our faith and making the point that the birth of Christ is “alive and well”, as we might say, despite the circumstances imposed by the virus.  That much at least we should do as Christians.

The other problem is going to be a little more difficult to address and it is this: what are we going to do about Christmas Masses?  We didn’t have this problem with Holy Week and Easter because our churches were closed and there was, therefore, no other option than for people to either find celebrations on the internet or go without.  Christmas will be different in that our churches are at least partially open, and strange as it may seem, that’s the problem.  At least there’s only one celebration whether it’s Mass on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, unlike Holy Week and Easter when there are three or four different celebrations.

In due course I’m sure we’ll be receiving directives from our Bishops’ Conference and from the diocese, and they will clarify what our options are. 

But it would seem likely that the obligation to attend Mass at Christmas will be suspended, just as the Sunday obligation continues to be – at first because churches were closed but even they reopened because places at Mass are restricted due to social distancing requirements.  In the case of our own parish this will mean that Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning will be limited to 30 persons (whether adults or children) and even if I was to celebrate a third Mass that would still only meet the needs of 90 people at the most whereas our normal pre-virus weekend Mass attendance would be around 180, and numbers would be expected to be even higher at Christmas.  Throughout the lockdown we have so far only seen a total of about 80 people at Masses throughout the week.  Many family groups haven’t yet returned to Mass (I’m not sure why). 

Trying to meet the expected demand at Christmas would be greatly helped if people accepted that they don’t have to go to Mass on Christmas Day (if that proves to be the case) just as at the moment they don’t have to go to Mass on Sundays.  Unfortunately, however, there will be those who will insist on doing what they have always done regardless and will want to be at Mass on Christmas Day just as they want to be at Mass on Sundays – and that’s what creates the difficulty.  Under the circumstances of the pandemic, being able to go to Mass at all should be important to people and not the day of the week that they go, and it’s on that basis that decisions will have to be made.

How do we accommodate a potential 180 people in a church that is currently restricted to 30?  Obviously we can’t.  Ordinarily I would celebrate two Christmas Masses, one on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas morning – which would normally be all there was a need for.  Celebrating extra Masses would be a contradiction if on the one hand the Church was to say that we are not obliged to go to Mass on Christmas Day because of the restrictions, and then I was to schedule additional Masses precisely so that people could! 

One solution would be to “level the playing field” by having no attended Christmas Masses at all and instead invite everyone who can to celebrate Mass online which would at least make it the same for everyone – except, of course, for those without access to the internet.  But it seems to me that the only fair and workable solution would be to schedule one attended Mass every day during the week after Christmas (which is on a Friday this year), but that will rely on people being willing to accept reserving a place at Mass on any day (and just one day) that week on a first-come-first-served basis according to availability.  If people aren’t willing to do that then the system won’t work.

Anticipating the possibility of Christmas visitors requesting places at Mass – even family members who may be visiting – and given the restrictions on capacity that we are already having to cope with, I need to ensure parishioners can get to Mass before we assign places to anyone else.  If available places are plentiful then there won’t be a problem, but if demand is high then anyone who is not a registered parishioners will have to go on a waiting list.  Much will depend on what I have said in that last paragraph.

There are, of course, still three months to go and anything could happen with this virus between now and then to change our situation and our options.  As always, therefore, please keep an eye on the parish newsletter and our parish website for updates and for information about when Christmas week sign-ups will begin (and it’s certainly not yet!).  Stay well,

All Masses will continue to be live-streamed to Zoom and Facebook as at present.  And so…

            Saturday          6pm     (attended Mass in church and live-streamed)

            Sunday       9:30am     (attended Mass in church and live-streamed)

            Monday         10am     (live-streamed Mass only)

            Tuesday         10am     (attended Mass in church and live-streamed)

            Wednesday    10am    (live-streamed Mass only)

            Thursday        10am    (attended Mass in church and live-streamed)

            Friday             10am    (live-streamed Mass only)

And so to reserve a place please contact:

            Mark Dias (07748655294 or markjdias@outlook.com) or

            Peter McGuire (07717498552 or peter.mcguire008@ntlworld.com) or

            John Sampson (07771805297 or sampson41@talktalk.net)

If you are trying to reserve a place at Mass, or, just as importantly, if you are cancelling a reservation, we need AT LEAST TWO DAYS’ NOTICE.  Phoning or emailing at the last moment – in one case just an hour before Mass(!) – is making things very difficult for those trying to facilitate the system.   Thank you. 

The church will only open 15mins before Mass time.  It is now mandatory to wear a face mask in church except for young children and people with respiratory problems.

 Please keep an eye on our parish website for any possible changes to previously published arrangements.  Thank you.