In some ways the suddenness with which most COVID restrictions appeared to end took us by surprise after nearly two years. Overnight the labyrinthine online HSE material concerning religious worship vanished from our screens, and we were told that what mattered now was local common sense and prudent voluntary risk assessment rather than mandatory requirements. Churches seemed to become fuller, ‘big’ occasions followed by tea were attempted (cautiously). People began – albeit behind face coverings – to sing again. Ribbons and ropes started to disappear from the end of church pews. There is undoubtedly a great deal of relief about, even if it is not a case of simply going back to how things were at the beginning of 2020.
My feeling is that the use of face coverings will be with us for a while yet, certainly for as long as they are required in places like schools, and that, looking further ahead, the use of facemasks will remain both wise and courteous (as was always the case in certain countries ) when people are displaying even the mildest of respiratory symptoms.
I also think we will never again forget the importance of adequate ventilation, and while striving to minimise draughts in churches we will also emphasise ‘letting the fresh air in’ every bit as much as we have always stressed ‘keeping the heat in’!
Will take a while to build confidence
So, in these weeks, we are working cautiously and carefully to achieve some degree of normality… always being sensitive to those who may be, for their own good reasons, particularly nervous. I hope that before too long we will be able to offer some more definite advice on the more tactile aspects particularly of sacramental worship, and this is an area where we do not expect to receive further specific public health advice, but where the churches will be expected to procure their own expert medical wisdom. I think of issues like sharing the Peace and, above all, of the Eucharistic cup, the use of which so intimately and wonderfully connects us all with the actions of the Lord in the Upper Room.
I suspect this is an area where congregational confidence will take a while to build, and where indeed the return of such confidence may happen somewhat more slowly even than ‘following the science’ might demand, so for now I would simply counsel that we should not lose heart in relation to the return in due course of those tactile things which deeply and powerfully enable sacramentally-minded people to feel truly and joyfully themselves.
Plaudits deserved for resilience and determination
Whatever we do will be based on the best professional advice available concerning viral transmission, and that advice will be implemented in a way that neither pressurises nor restrains individuals in a manner that they find unhelpful. Meanwhile, parishioners and clergy the length and breadth of our diocese (and beyond) deserve heartfelt plaudits for the resilience and determination they have shown in making our places of worship as safe as is possible all through these burdensome months and indeed years.
Put liturgical ‘ooomph’ back into Holy Week
There is one thing I do hope will happen in the reasonably immediate future. Notwithstanding the imaginative and technological miracles that have been achieved online, there is no substitute for the actual, disciplined, joyful, renewing gathering of God’s people during Lent, Holy Week and Easter. It is three years now since we observed the times preceding Easter, and the Festival itself, with due public corporate devotion and joy. I truly and earnestly appeal to parishes this year to put what I can only call liturgical ooomph back into Lent and Holy Week in particular.
For years now I have contended that the manner in which Holy Week is kept, day by day, is among the best clues as to the spiritual temperature of any worshipping community. This year is a year to raise that temperature, to be challenging and imaginative, to regain habits of devotion and participation that might be in danger of being lost, to enjoy the possibilities, colour and genuine excitement of liturgy … I could go on and on.
This is the year, frankly, when the public eye needs again to be drawn to why Holy Week matters so much to us, why its events are of eternal and cosmic significance, why the haunting words “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” must be proclaimed anew from every church door and steeple.
Last month I mentioned with joy the prospect of the installation of the Reverend Bruce Hayes as dean of Waterford Cathedral and rector of Waterford Union at 7 p.m. on Wednesday April 6th. This is an occasion of great parochial and civic significance in the context of the largest city in the diocese and we expect it to be marked not least by musical richness and a large attendance. Three days previously, at 4 p.m. on Sunday April 3rd in St Canice’s Cathedral, two more of our deacons who continue to serve in Ordained Local Ministry, Mike O Meara (Cashel) and Ger James (Carlow) will be ordained as priests.
With renewed freedom to gather in numbers, to make music and to celebrate, we trust that the ordination of these two priests can be a great diocesan moment and we wish them every blessing in all that is to be.
Concerning more personal matters of ‘all that is to be’ in my own life and ministry I shall try to write, I am sure in faltering words, next month.
Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory
written for Magazine deadline 8th February 2022