So run the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities by Charlies Dickens. As a priest, I’d prefer to omit the references to incredulity and despair, but otherwise it pretty much describes what we are all going through at the moment as coronavirus continues to dictate the way we have to live our lives.
As a matter of course, Catholic priests celebrate Mass not just on Sundays but every day. It’s what we do; it underpins the basic rhythm of our lives. Therefore, also, the celebration of Mass throughout the week is an option that is open to our parishioners and there is always a handful of people in every parish for whom that regular celebration – perhaps not daily but at least more than just on Sundays – is important to their rhythm of life also. To suddenly have that option removed in response to the need for everyone to self-isolate has been particularly difficult for many.
The best we have been able to do is have our churches open during the day for people (of any denomination or faith, or none) to be able to call in and pray for the situation we are dealing with, for the needs of those who are suffering with the virus, and for those who have lost their lives to it.
Meanwhile, unlike our parishioners, we priests are in the privileged position of being able to celebrate Mass by ourselves, either in our presbyteries or in church behind locked doors, and at least our people are hopefully comforted by the knowledge that that basic foundation of our faith continues to be offered for their needs and intentions – even if they can’t be present.
But then rather amazingly, within days of the ban, ingenuity and technology stepped forward as tech-savvy priests or parishioners set up systems enabling them to stream the celebration of Mass on the internet so that parishioners with the facilities to do so (whether laptops, iPads or smartphones) can at least watch and join in the celebration at home even if they aren’t able to also receive communion as they would normally do.
Personally speaking, this facility has also restored a sense of purpose in that I am able to do as much as is currently possible to maintain the spiritual life of the parish and have been greatly encouraged by parishioners emailing to say how comforting they found it to see their church on the internet and to enjoy the familiarity of the parish Mass, albeit in a somewhat restricted way, but better that than not at all.
And given the central communal nature of the celebration of Mass, from my own point of view, it’s a very strange experience speaking to an empty church and there being no response to the various invitatory prayers. But, again, better that than not at all.
It has always been an understanding that you couldn’t just stay home on a Sunday and maybe tune into a Mass on the Vatican or other religious channel of your television. In other words, in order to keep the Sabbath by attending Mass, you had to be actually present at the celebration. Otherwise it would be like watching a travel programme about Africa and then claiming you had been there when the nearest you had been was your armchair at home.
But these are very different and challenging times that we are experiencing and, given that we have no idea how long they may last, then there is an obvious need for flexibility and adaptability which God surely understands, and this is where the internet has come into its own once again.
It began, in my own case, with the need to put a lot more information on our parish website (as well as at the back of church) in an effort to keep people as informed as possible in what has been a rapidly changing situation.
But having someone in the parish who not only suggested the possibility of streaming Masses, but was able to set up a system for doing so has been, in every sense, a blessing and one that I know parishioners are already greatly appreciating.
And, of course, it is happening in parishes everywhere.
Despite being currently the worst of times, the season of darkness, the winter of despair, it is also the age of wisdom, the epoch of belief, the season of light, the spring of hope.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.