“Will Ye No Come Back Again?”

That question is posed in the poem Bonnie Charlie and is addressed to the Prince in exile on the continent following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  I can’t help wondering how many people might not come back again to the practice of their faith when the coronavirus pandemic subsides enough for our churches to reopen.  Most will, but I suspect some won’t – which would be rather sad really.

Before the virus struck and churches had to close, there will have been the usual mix of people: those for whom the practice of their faith is important and who would be at Sunday Mass regularly come what may, and on the other hand those who might also go to Sunday Mass regularly but more because they have to than by choice and they might well allow other things to take priority despite the choice of Vigil and Sunday Mass times in their parish and elsewhere.  No one is physically forcing us to go to Mass, but we are aware of God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath holy and the Church teaches the obligation of Sunday (or Saturday Vigil) Mass as the primary way of doing that, and that it would be seriously sinful to freely choose not to go when we could have and should have.  

Throughout the pandemic and the lockdown that came with it, our churches have been closed and therefore, for obvious reasons, we were excused that Sunday obligation.  Those who were regularly churchgoing will, I’m sure, have actively sought out Masses streamed to the internet (if they had access) so they could take part in the Mass as best they could even though they weren’t able to receive communion, and to do so “in the company” of fellow parishioners – two things that were particularly important to them during that difficult time.   On the other hand some of those whose faith practice isn’t perhaps quite as strong, will have accepted the situation of being excused Sunday Mass and, even though they had access to the internet, didn’t go in search of a Mass to take part in – possibly on the grounds that if they couldn’t receive communion then what would be the point.  Have they chosen other ways to keep the Sabbath, or have they simply taken a break, as it were, from the practice of their faith?  They would probably say that they will go back to Mass again when churches reopen, but will they?  

Experience shows that if a parish has any sort of regular social activities or gatherings (coffee after Mass, weekly bingo, Bible study groups, whatever) and they stop let’s say during the summer holidays, when they start up again typically numbers will be down on what they were before as some will have got out of the routine or found other things to do.  My concern is that with every week that passes and that the lockdown continues, some people will simply get out of the habit of going to Mass – especially if habit rather than commitment to the practice of their faith is the only thing that keeps them going.  I don’t have the same concern for those who are stronger in their faith and who are regularly at Mass even if, during the lockdown, they haven’t been able to access Mass on the internet.  They will, I’m sure, still be “hungry” for the Mass when our churches reopen and we can celebrate together once again.  

Which is why it was important for us priests to try to celebrate as much of the Holy Week services (which came along just two weeks into the lockdown) as possible on the internet so that Easter, as the most important feast in the Church’s calendar, didn’t pass unmarked.  Also the celebration of Sunday and weekday parish Masses was particularly important to people because it brought them “together” in worship, and it offered hope and encouragement until churches could open again.  All of which makes me wonder how those people coped who haven’t accessed those celebrations or weren’t able to.

It’s been a bit of a “Catch 22” situation in that, like most priests, I have tried to use our parish website as a principle way of making practical, spiritual, and pastoral information available, especially the links to our streamed Masses, and Sunday scripture references and homilies, but then if people don’t have access to the internet they probably don’t have access to our newsletter either.  However I have had to hope that most people have a smart phone or an iPad these days and could access both our newsletter and our daily celebrations of the Mass if they wanted to.  Certainly week by week we have seen the number of people joining our celebrations increase, some no doubt surprising themselves at how “tech savvy” they have become.    

It’s also been encouraging to see that we have actually had more people “attending” weekday Mass on-line than would have been at morning Mass under normal circumstances.  I think this only goes to show how important the Mass, and seeing familiar faces “gathered” with them, has been to people. They, I’m sure, will be ready to figuratively break the door down to get into church for Mass and to physically receive holy communion once again just as soon as they are able to do that. 

However, until a safe and effective vaccine has been developed and made available, it may be that a partial lockdown and a degree of social distancing will have to continue so limiting social gatherings for the foreseeable future.  Even when they are allowed, it may be that for safety’s sake we will all have to wear face masks – which in itself could be enough to deter some people from taking what they may perceive to be an unnecessary risk by going to Mass.

Also, because we have been excused our Sunday obligation for the past several weeks because of the lockdown, as and when things return to normal there are going to be some who will ask “Why is there suddenly an obligation once again – why can’t we decide for ourselves when to go to Mass?”  Indeed some may also ask “If it has been OK to watch Mass on the internet for all these weeks, why do we now have to go to Mass in church?”

That last question is much easier to answer in that the Mass is, by its very nature, a communal celebration which involves not just being nourished by God’s word, but also by the Eucharist and for that we have to be present at Mass (unless, of course, we are sick or housebound and the Blessed Sacrament is brought to us).  The answer to the first question is a little more complicated in as much as it involves our response to God’s commandment with regard to keeping the Sabbath holy and which the Church confirms by stating precisely how we should fulfil what God has commanded us to do.  Left to our own devices and our own initiative, human nature being what it is, we will typically let things slide – which some people do anyway despite God’s command and the Church’s precept. 

When the pandemic is finally over you would think everyone would welcome with open arms the opportunity to celebrate Mass and receive holy communion together in church once again having experienced what it has been like to be deprived of that privilege all this time.  However, some of those who, as we said earlier, tend to go to Mass out of habit rather than commitment might not be there if they have got out of the habit over the past several weeks.  And there will always be those who seem indifferent to the question of mortal sin in deciding not to go to Mass in favour of doing something else.  Sadly one or two of them may also be missing. 

All of that said, on the first Sunday that we can gather it would be truly amazing to see our churches packed to the rafters after what we have been through, with everyone there because they want to be, eager to be nourished by both word and sacrament.  

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