Congregations may not return fully after convenience of live-streamed Masses - Neil McNicholas

In the midst of all the voices calling for the lifting of Covid restrictions so that life can get back to something approaching normal, that of the churches has been somewhat silent in terms of what we might be hoping for.

An Easter Sunday Mass being live-streamed. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

For whole swathes of time since the original lockdown was put in place, our churches had to close and many priests (and I’m sure ministers of other denominations) turned to technology to live-stream our services to the internet – which was fine for those people who had the means to watch our “broadcasts”, but what about everyone else?

It was, therefore, very welcome when our churches reopened and people were able to attend Mass in person, albeit in greatly reduced numbers due to the restrictions of social distancing.

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But we then went back into lockdown for a brief period and our churches had to close again until March since when, thankfully, attended Masses have continued uninterrupted though still socially distanced.

What surprised me somewhat was that people weren’t falling over themselves to come back to church as and when they reopened.

At first I think there were a lot of people who were shielding and who therefore couldn’t gather with others, but there werez also a lot of people – especially the elderly – who were understandably nervous about public gatherings even with all the safety precautions that we had to put in place. But as the weeks and months passed and the second reopening was permitted, people were conspicuous by their absence and they still are, which continues to be a bit of mystery and one also being experienced by many of my colleagues. Obviously I can’t speak for my fellow ministers in other denominations but I wouldn’t be surprised if they have had the same experience.

At one time I would have expressed my enthusiasm for our churches not only being allowed to open, but to do so without any restrictions on the numbers allowed to attend. However, the experience of the past few months has persuaded me that there doesn’t seem to be any need for such a drastic step just at the moment because there simply isn’t the demand for places at our Masses, and if continuing for a while longer with restricted numbers and social distancing will help to keep people safe who do come to church then so be it.

What does concern me about the missing numbers however – and again this is a concern shared by many of my brother priests – is the thought that people might never actually return in anywhere near pre-Covid numbers without a considerable pastoral effort on our part and I’m not entirely sure what that might involve.

It is a traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that people are required to go to Mass on Sundays as one of the ways of keeping the Sabbath holy in response to God’s commandment and it is considered a serious matter not to do so. When the first lockdown began and churches closed, that obligation was suspended because obviously people couldn’t go to church at all, and even when churches reopened restricted numbers meant that we simply couldn’t accommodate people at Sunday Masses in previous numbers and so they were merely encouraged to go to Mass on some other day if they could, but experience has shown that many seem to have got out of the habit or are choosing not to go because they are no longer obliged to – which is a bit sad really.

I also think we may have thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water by doing such a good job in live-streaming Masses to the internet. It has been a great thing to be able to do and I know it helped a lot of people find spiritual support and comfort by not being totally deprived of the celebration of Mass as they would have been without that provision.

However, human nature being what it is, I wonder if over the past 15 months people have got used to the convenience of joining in the Mass from home (like all the other deliveries to their doorsteps) and may be finding it difficult to break that habit even when actually going to Mass means they can receive holy communion – which sadly they weren’t able to during the months of lockdown.

I would love to see my parish return to something nearer normal spiritually and socially, with unrestricted numbers allowed in church and in our parish hall afterwards for coffee, but just for the moment there simply isn’t the demand – a situation that is of more immediate concern.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.